Boris Johnson urged Labour to stop “sniping from the sidelines” after Sir Keir Starmer warned the Prime Minister’s Covid-19 confusion came as no surprise.
Labour leader Sir Keir mocked Mr Johnson’s mixed messages over the ban on households mixing in the North East of England, suggesting the Prime Minister’s weekly outings in the Commons had already demonstrated his failure to grasp detail.
Sir Keir also begged the Prime Minister to provide answers on economic support to help thousands of workers facing redundancy before Christmas.
Mr Johnson defended the Government’s support packages and urged MPs, businesses and others to “pull together” to fight Covid-19 and keep the economy moving.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir opened by questioning why only one area of England has ever come out of local lockdown – with more than 16 million people living under local restrictions.
He said: “In recent months, 48 areas in England have gone into local restrictions, but only one has ever come out and stayed out – that is Luton.
“Why does the Prime Minister think that is?”
Mr Johnson replied: “The reason, I think, for the success of Luton is that the local people pulled together to suppress the virus, to follow the guidance, and that is the way forward for the entire country.
“That is what we did before in March and April, and I have no doubt that that is what we’re going to do again.”
Sir Keir called into question the Prime Minister’s “whack-a-mole strategy” and warned many communities feel as if things are “getting worse, not better”, to which Mr Johnson insisted that he did not want to impose restrictions but “strong, local action” is required when virus rates increase.
Sir Keir went on to ask how members of the public are supposed to understand the rules when Mr Johnson does not understand them himself.
The Labour leader said: “One of the major problems, as we’ve seen in the last 24 hours, is widespread confusion about the local restrictions and I don’t just mean the Prime Minister not knowing his own rules – having sat opposite the Prime Minister at PMQs every week that didn’t come as a surprise to me.
“Let me quote to him the Conservative council leader in Bolton, a Conservative leader.
“He said this about the Government’s handling of restrictions – ‘it’s breeding resentment, it’s become too complex, too complicated, people feel very let down and very frustrated and very forgotten’.
“If the Prime Minister doesn’t understand the rules and his own council leaders are complaining about mixed messages, how does the Prime Minister expect the rest of the country to understand and follow the rules?”
Mr Johnson responded: “Actually, I think that the people of this country do understand and overwhelmingly do follow the rules, and that I may say is in spite of the efforts of (Sir Keir) continually to try to snipe from the sidelines, to undermine what we are trying to do, and he mentions the restrictions in the North East, and I cleared that matter up as fast as I could.”
Sir Keir said he supports the coronavirus restrictions but warned jobs are at risk, including 10,000 in Newcastle, adding: “What I am asking the Prime Minister is can the economic support go in for those who will lose their jobs?
“He didn’t answer that. There’s 10,000 people that wanted an answer to that question because they’re going to lose their jobs by Christmas. Prime Minister, you really should have answered it.
“The reality is, the Chancellor has made a political choice to reduce economic support just when the new health restrictions are coming in.”
The Labour leader quoted a wedding venue owner from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Richmond constituency about the difficulties and possible redundancies they face.
Mr Johnson defended the Government’s economic support and said he “feels” for the business owner quoted, before adding: “The best way forward for him and all other businesses in the country is if we all pull together now, get the virus down, keep the economy moving.”
Sir Keir concluded by warning Mr Johnson to “not be so tin-eared” when it comes to responding to job concerns.
The Prime Minister countered: “One day they’re theoretically marching side by side with the rest of us trying to defeat coronavirus, the next minute they’re off in the undergrowth firing from the sidelines.
“It was the shadow education secretary (Kate Green) who really revealed what Labour is all about. She said this was a good crisis which they intended to exploit – we see this as a moment for the nation to come together.”