Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of “dividing communities” and pitting regions against each other in his approach to local lockdowns, arguing that areas put in the top level of coronavirus restrictions were likely to be stuck there for months.
In a series of exchanges at prime minister’s questions that highlighted the policy divide between the parties over how to tackle growing infection rates, the Labour leader said Johnson was “bargaining with people’s lives” in the way financial support for affected areas was decided.
In response, Johnson said Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, who has been battling the government for more support for businesses and workers affected by the region moving into tier 3 of lockdown rules, had turned down a generous offer.
The £60m of business and employment support was still on offer, Johnson said, and would be distributed to the region via local boroughs.
But Starmer said those affected by tier 3 rules in Greater Manchester, where pubs, bars and other businesses will have to close, “will either be out of work or face significant pay cuts”. The government’s job support plan pays such people two-thirds of their wages, rather than the 80% under the now-defunct furlough scheme.
“Their rents and their mortgage won’t be lower, their food and their heating bills won’t be lower, and that could last for months,” Starmer said. “Why can’t the prime minister and the chancellor understand this? Stop bargaining with people’s lives, stop dividing communities, and provide the support that is needed in Manchester.”
The Labour leader accused Johnson of approaching negotiations in a “grubby, take it or leave it way”. He said: “It’s corrosive to public trust to pit region against region, mayor against mayor, council against council, asking them to trade away their businesses and jobs.”
More generally, Starmer argued, tier 3 was “the worst of all worlds”. He said: “It brings significant economic harm, without getting the virus sufficiently under control to exit tier 3. Instead of being a solution, tier 3 is a gateway to weeks and weeks, more likely months and months, of agony, from which there’s no likely exit.”
Starmer began by pressing Johnson over how a tier 3 region could depart from the rigorous rules, saying this could only seemingly happen if the R rate, the rate of coronavirus infections, was below one, meaning infection numbers are falling rather than rising.
“If the R rate hasn’t gone below one, then the infection rate is still going up, and the numbers are going up, and the admissions are going up, and numbers in hospitals are going up, and the deaths are going up,” Starmer said. “Is the prime minister seriously saying that he would take a tier 3 area out of tier 3 with the R above one? I don’t think so.”
Johnson said tier 3 areas would have their status reviewed every 28 days, and accused Starmer of being “incoherent” in attacking local lockdowns when he was also arguing for a national lockdown for two or three weeks, a co-called circuit-breaker, intended to break the spread of transmission.
The prime minister said: “I think it is the height of absurdity that he stands up and attacks the economic consequences of the measures that we are obliged to take across some parts of the country, when he wants to turn the lights out with a full national lockdown.”
Starmer reiterated his call for a temporary lockdown, saying it should begin to coincide with half term for most English schools next week: “This may be the last opportunity for the prime minister to put in place an effective circuit break. The prime minister was too slow in the first phase of this pandemic. He’s being too slow again.”