Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of presiding over a “summer of chaos” due to confused policies and mixed messaging over Covid restrictions, also indicating potential Labour misgivings about plans for vaccine-based Covid passports.
In a prime minister’s questions in which Johnson appeared virtually from his official country retreat of Chequers, where he is self-isolating, the prime minister also chose to not reject claims by Dominic Cummings that he opposed lockdown because most Covid fatalities were in their 80s.
In a toughening of Labour’s attacks on the impact of this week’s lifting of most Covid rules in England, Starmer took aim at what he said was confused signals from ministers on whether people alerted by the NHS test-and-trace app had to self-isolate, and about the numbers of people already doing so.
“The British people are trying to follow the rules – how can they when his ministers keep making them up as they go along,” the Labour leader told Johnson, who appeared via video link after being in close contact last week with the health secretary, Sajid Javid, who subsequently tested positive for Covid.
Starmer said: “Everything may be calm from the prime minister’s country retreat, but back here the truth is we’re heading for a summer of chaos. One million children were out of school last week. A huge number of businesses are closing because so many staff are self-isolating.”
Johnson – who at one point repeated most of an answer after the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, said he had been inaudible in the chamber – accused Starmer of making “vacuous political points”, asking the Labour leader whether he backed the government’s reopening plans.
Starmer replied: “The PM keeps asking me if I will support his chaos – no.”
Labour has not as yet set out its position on the government’s plan that from the end of September people would not be allowed into nightclubs or similarly confined indoor spaces without proving they have received both vaccinations, a U-turn on previous rejections of the idea of such domestic Covid certifications.
But Starmer criticised Johnson for endorsing the idea, indicating at least some Labour reservations. Given widespread dislike of the idea on Tory benches, outright opposition from Labour could scupper the plan in a Commons vote.
Starmer said: “How on earth are businesses meant to plan when the prime minister keeps chopping and changing like this?
“I have to say, even after 15 months of these exchanges, I can’t believe the prime minister doesn’t see the irony of spending freedom day locked in isolation, and announcing plans for a vaccine ID card. I remember when he used to say he’d eat an ID card if he had to produce one. Now he’s introducing them.”
He added: “When it comes to creating confusion, the prime minister is a super-spreader.”
Starmer used one question to ask Johnson if he would apologise for a WhatsApp message from October last year to Cummings, his former chief adviser, and other aides, which said he had been “rocked by some of the data on Covid fatalities” given it showed median ages above 80.
“That is above life expectancy,” he wrote in the message, shown by Cummings to the BBC. “So get Covid and live longer. Hardly anyone under 60 goes into hospital (4 per cent) and of those virtually all survive.”
Johnson avoided the question, saying only that nothing he could do “can make up for the loss and the suffering that people have endured throughout this pandemic”.
However, the prime minister appeared to accept at least the premise of the message, saying he had been forced to make “incredibly tough” decisions in previous months, adding: “What has changed since we were thinking in those ways is, of course, that we have rolled out vaccines faster than any other country in Europe.”