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Keir Starmer accuses Boris Johnson of losing control of Covid crisis

The Guardian logo The Guardian 24/09/2020 Peter Walker Political correspondent

Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of “pretending there isn’t a problem” with the test-and-trace system, as he claimed the prime minister had lost control of the coronavirus crisis.

In a clash focused entirely on the government’s response to Covid, the Labour leader posed a series of sometimes detailed queries on the testing system. Johnson generally ignored these, instead accusing Starmer of trying to “create political opportunity” out of the pandemic.

One of the more confusing exchanges during prime minister’s questions came when Starmer quizzed Johnson on his insistence in the Commons on Tuesday that the performance of test and trace had no bearing on the coronavirus rate, contrasting this with Johnson’s previous insistence that the system would be “a real game-changer”.

“Yesterday the prime minister said the complete opposite. Standing there he said testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or transmission of the disease. Both positions cannot be right. Which one is it, prime minister?” Starmer asked.

Johnson’s reply appeared to argue that in saying test and trace had no impact on Covid infections, he was talking only about the “obvious fact of biology and epidemiology” that it is transmitted by human or aerosol contact.

Starmer again asked about the apparent contradiction, prompting the prime minister to accuse him of not listening.

The Labour leader responded: “I listened to the answer that the prime minister gave to the question. That’s why I asked him the question. Because yesterday he said the complete opposite of what he said today.”

Overall, the exchanges followed the recent pattern of prime minister’s questions, with Johnson avoiding direct answers to instead accuse Starmer of seeking to inflame tensions.


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The Labour leader castigated Johnson over the lack of available tests, especially for families with school-aged children, and accused him of being in denial: “Pretending there isn’t a problem is part of the problem, prime minister.”

He asked the Johnson if the reason for the difficulty of some people in getting tests was “we haven’t got enough capacity, because nobody could have expected the rise in demand – that’s the Dido Harding defence – or is it, we’ve got all the capacity we need, it’s just that people are being unreasonable in asking for tests? That’s the Matt Hancock defence. So which is it?”

Johnson replied by accusing Starmer of making “unseemly and unjustified” attacks on Harding, the head of NHS test and trace.

While saying he did not “deny the anxiety of those who want tests, which I readily accept”, Johnson called for a “spirit of togetherness”.

Related: Growing numbers of NHS nurses quit within three years, study finds

Starmer angrily rejected this: “The prime minister knows my complaint is not with the NHS, it’s with the government. My wife works for the NHS. My mother worked for the NHS. My sister works for the NHS. So I’m not going to take lectures from the prime minister on supporting the NHS.”

In another exchange, Starmer asked Johnson about the numbers of pupils forced to miss school because they were awaiting a Covid test, with the prime minister replying by talking about the very low risk from the virus faced by children.

Starmer said: “That’s such a poor defence. The point isn’t whether the children have got Covid, it’s that they’ve got Covid symptoms and they’re off school.”

He added: “If the prime minister doesn’t see that he’s really out of touch with families and what they’re going through with schooling, day in and day out, in the last few weeks.

“The reality is that losing control of testing is a major reason why the prime minister is losing control of this virus.”

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