Watch: Starmer accuses Johnson of sitting on his hands as COVID ripped through UK
Boris Johnson has been accused of “sitting on his hands” for 17 days as coronavirus ripped through the country.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told the prime minister on Wednesday that this indecision had been costly, with 17,000 people having died from COVID since Johnson declared at the last PMQs of 2020 on 16 December that there had been a significant reduction in the virus.
Starmer asked the PM how he had “got it so wrong and why was he so slow to act” to announce a third national lockdown.
The Labour leader said “clear” advice from government scientific advisers Sage had showed on 18 December that a tougher lockdown would be needed to stop the rapid spread of the new coronavirus variant.
Starmer said: “Instead of acting on 18 December the prime minister sat on his hands for over two weeks.
“We’re now seeing in the daily figures the tragic consequences of that delay.
“So how does the prime Minister justify delaying for 17 days after he got that advice on 18 December?”
Johnson responded: “I must disagree very profoundly with what the right honourable gentleman [Starmer] has just said, because he knows very well that within 24 hours of getting the advice on 18 December about the spread of the new variant we acted to put the vast part of the country into much much tougher measures.
“We are now seeing the beginnings of some signs that is starting to have an effect in many parts of the country but by no means everywhere.
“And it is early days and people must keep their discipline and keep enforcing the rules and work together to roll out the vaccine programme.”
But Starmer said the tier system had been inadequate and that Johnson should have been much tougher, adding: “I wrote to the PM on 22 December, I hadn’t seen the Sage advice at that stage.
“If it indicated there should be a national lockdown [I said] he should do it immediately and he’ll have our full support.
“The advice was a November-style lockdown was not enough – how on earth was putting people into a different tier system an answer to the advice that was given?”
Several Labour MPs backed Starmer’s attack on the PM.
Banged to rights by @Keir_Starmer . Prime Minister warned by SAGE on 18th December that tougher lockdown than November needed. It took him SEVENTEEN DAYS before he introduced that lockdown, tens of thousands more infected, and thousands more hospitalisations and deaths #PMQs
— Toby Perkins MP (@tobyperkinsmp) January 13, 2021
Here we go again - the PM taking no responsibility for failing to act quickly as 17,000 people have passed away since he told Parliament there was no need for "endless lockdown" #PMQs
Now trying to shrug off the pathetic food parcels, not good enough and not the first time
— Jim McMahon MP (@JimfromOldham) January 13, 2021
— Chris Elmore MP (@CPJElmore) January 13, 2021
Starmer said that every time there was a big decision to make, the PM got there late.
He said: “The next big decision is obvious, the current restrictions are not strong enough to control the virus.
“Stronger restrictions are needed. In a week or two the PM is likely to be asking members to vote for this.”
Johnson said his government was keeping things under review and that if there were any need to toughen restrictions he will come to the Commons to vote on it.
Before Christmas, the PM decided to allow some festive mixing of households despite Sage warning "any relaxation" of restrictions would lead to a potentially large increase in infections.
Ministers were also urged by scientists to not reopen schools in the new year but Johnson continued to insist they were safe, before making a U-turn just one day after they opened.
The UK has now seen more COVID deaths in the second wave than in the whole of the first.
As of Tuesday, 41,724 people had died from the disease since cases began to rise at the end of August, according to data from the unofficial Independent Sage body.
This compares with 41,501 deaths in the first wave before 31 August.
Second wave death numbers are expected to climb still further over the next few weeks as the impact from Christmas gatherings hits.
It comes after the UK reported a further 1,243 deaths within 28 days of a positive test for COVID-19, bringing the total death toll to 83,203.
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown