Boris Johnson has indicated he has not read a government-commissioned report setting out urgent measures needed to prepare for a possible second wave of coronavirus, telling the Commons only that he was “aware” of it.
Johnson was questioned at length by Keir Starmer at prime minister’s questions about the study by 37 senior doctors and scientists, published this week, and the need for an effective test-and-trace system to mitigate any new outbreak.
The 79-page report predicts that in a worse-case scenario, a resurgence of Covid-19 this winter could kill up to 120,000 people, and it says preparation for this in the coming weeks is vital to reduce the death toll.
Starmer said: “I have to ask, in light of the last few questions: has the prime minister actually read this report, that sets out the reasonable worse-case scenario and tells the government what it needs to do about it in the next six weeks? Has he read it?”
Johnson replied: “I am, of course, aware of the report, and we are, of course, taking every reasonable step to prepare this country for a second spike,” bringing jeers from some opposition MPs.
Starmer asked Johnson to commit to implementing all the recommendations of the report, which was commissioned by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser. Johnson did not do so, saying only that ministers would ensure the NHS was not overwhelmed by a second wave.
After PMQs, a spokesman for Starmer said the report set out the potentially dire consequences of a second wave, adding: “It is deeply concerning that the prime minister hasn’t even bothered to read it.”
The spokesman also condemned Johnson for his response to Starmer’s last question of the session. Starmer said he was meeting families bereaved by coronavirus later in the day, and asked Johnson what his message to them would be.
Johnson said he would do everything he could to prevent a second spike, but ended with a clearly prepared joke about Starmer’s legal past, saying: “He’s got more briefs than Calvin Klein.”
Starmer’s spokesman said: “I think it tells you everything you need to know about the prime minister’s flippant approach to this crisis, and his style of leadership.”
The leaders also clashed on the test-and-trace system for finding people potentially exposed to the virus. The proportion of contacts who have been tracked down has fallen in recent weeks. “What assurance can the prime minister give that the system will be fit for both purposes in the timeframe envisaged in this report – ie by this September?” Starmer asked.
Johnson replied by returning to a familiar theme of recent PMQs, accusing Starmer of selectively opposing government actions on coronavirus and ”knocking the confidence of the country”.
He added: “I can certainly give the house the assurance that our test-and-trace system is as good as or better than any other system anywhere in the world. And yes, it will play a vital part in ensuring that we do not have a second spike this winter.”
Starmer responded by condemning Johnson’s approach to the exchanges. “It’s perfectly possible to support track and trace, and point out the problems,” he said. “And standing up every week saying it’s a stunning success is kidding no one. That isn’t giving people confidence in the system. They would like a prime minister who stands up and says: ‘There are problems, and this is what I’m going to do about them.’”
Johnson committed to an independent inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, but said now was not the “right moment” for it.
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Starmer also questioned Johnson over efforts to prevent mass unemployment, asking why the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had not used his mini-budget last week to set out assistance for specific sectors, such as aviation.
Johnson again responded mainly by attacking the Labour leader for perceived inconsistency. “He has to work out whether he’s going to support or oppose the government’s programme to get people back into work,” he said.
Starmer replied: “This is just such rhetorical nonsense. It is perfectly proper and right for the opposition to set out the parts of the package that we support the government, and to highlight where there are problems.”