Leader of the Opposition Questions
Starmer started on the theme of the importance of an effective ‘track, trace and isolate’ system. He noted that the Prime Minister had promised a “world beating” system by June 1st. He noted that in England there were 33,000 people are estimated to have COVID-19 at the moment, but the tracking and tracing system only contacted 10,000 people and asked them to provide their details. Starmer asked that if two-thirds 2/3rds of those with COVID-19 are not reached, there is a problem isn’t there?
Johnson forcefully defended the system that is in place . He said they had contacted 87,000 people who have volunteered to self-isolate. Johnson said that the system and the people in charge deserve immense credit. He called for the Leader of the Opposition to join him in paying tribute to the team behind the system.
Starmer immediately pointed out that the Prime Minister did not address the question. He proceeded to ask the question in a different way. He asked what the government will do to address the gap between those with COVID-19 and the two-thirds who are not being contacted.
Johnson responded by suggesting Starmer may be misleading the House. At this point the Speaker intervened as it is unparliamentary to accuse another member of misleading the House. Johnson then changed his language slightly by saying that the Leader of the Opposition was ‘inadvertently misleading’ the house. He said that the 33,000 figure is an estimate and that track and trace was testing the vast majority of those who tested positive. He went on to criticise Starmer for again ‘yo-yoing’, as yesterday Starmer seemed to support the track and trace system.
Starmer immediately took the initiative by clearly stating the the figures he was using were the government figures. As he announced this, he brandished the papers theatrically. Similarly to last week, he turned to local councils. He said the poorest councils in the Midlands and North-East were also those most effected by COVID-19. He raised the concerns that local councils have neither the funding nor the powers to correctly enforce a local lockdown. He asked the PM when local councils would get the guidance and support that they needed.
Johnson said that local lockdowns are effective. He said local councils understood their role. He said it was effective, but did not add any supporting evidence to support this assertion. He said the government will support local councils.
Starmer then turned to the app, pointing out that this was essential to battling COVID-19 as it is the only way of tracing unknown contacts. He said that up until last week the government suggested that the app was of critical importance. However, at the weekend the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, downplayed the importance of the App. Starmer asked the Prime Minister which it was, critical or not?
Johnson said that there was not a single country in the world that has a functioning track and trace app, because there isn’t one. He then went back to praising the success of the test and trace operation, rather than talking about the app. He again reiterated that Starmer was flip-flopping on his support.
Starmer’s best moment of the day, probably in fact the best of his month in PMQs, was to immiedately name Germany as a country with a functioning tracing app. He said their app was working from the 15th June and it had been downloaded 12 million times. Starmer said that £12 Million had been spent by Britain on developing the app and that it now would not be ready until winter. He asked when Britain would have a working app?
Johnson reiterated that no country had a working app (this has since been questioned in the media). He again pivoted to the NHS Test and Trace system. This was a weak response from the Prime Minister. It was made worse by Johnson again returning to the issue of Labour councils encouraging children back to schools, a huge deviation from the question being asked.
Starmer said the only u-turn on education policy was that by the Education Secretary. He then said that there was a theme to these exchanges. He highlighted the Prime Minister’s responses to questions on child poverty last week and that the Children’s Commissioner had said both responses were ‘mostly false’ or ‘false’. He said the Prime Minister had been ‘found out’ by either dodging the question or giving dodgy answers. He asked whether the Prime Minister would correct the parliamentary record on child poverty?
Johnson instead listed more statistics of government success. On child poverty, he said that the single biggest determinant on child poverty was children’s schooling and again criticised Starmer for not being clear on this issue.
Keir Starmer was the clear winner today. This was his most convincing PMQs performance of the month, by far. On track and trace, he put the PM on the back foot, also challenging him as to why the app tracing system was not longer set up despite £12 Million spent and promises that it would be ‘world leading’ by the 1st June. He also painted Boris Johnson as slippery, by highlighting the fact the children’s commissioner had ruled that two of the Prime Minister’s responses about child poverty last week had been ruled to be forced. Cleverly, he left this to the last question, leaving it firmly in the minds of those watching. This week, the PM’s attack on Starmer over his policy on school returns bounced off, with little impact whatsoever. Starmer now has to replicate this dominance on a more regular basis.
SNP Leader Questions:
Ian Blackford asked about the risk of a second-wave of COVID-19 and also about the economic challenges ahead. He pointed out that measures that cut the risk of a second-wave would also harm the economic recovery of Scotland. He asked whether the PM welcomed the efforts of the Scottish Government in working with independent business workers to secure an economic recovery.
Johnson responded by saying he would have course be happy to study the documents to which Blackford referred.
Blackford said he was grateful for the answer. He pointed out that the advisory group had called for a review of the devolved fiscal framework (how money is allocated to the devolved areas). He says that the group has said more capital is needed to allow an investment led recovery in Scotland. He asked whether the PM would allow Scotland more power to borrow money and fuel their own recovery.
The Prime Minister said that Scotland had received £3.8 Billion in specific COVID-19 due to the Barnett Formula and the Westminster Government would continue to support Scotland. He said that most importantly Scotland would continue to thrive as part of the union.
Blackford was better today. He finally asked a specific policy question. However, The PM didn’t respond to it and Blackford could not follow up due to only having two questions. In truth, the first question was a wasted one, the response from the PM to it was highly predictable. Better management of his two questions may have allowed Blackford to leave more of a mark on Johnson in this exchange.
Best Backbench Question:
Liz Saville Roberts asked a very important question of the Prime Minister. She noted that COVID-19 had broken out in three Welsh food factories. She said that similar outbreaks had happened in Germany. However, in Germany, workers on sick pay receive 100% of their wages, but in the UK they only receive on average around 20%. She asked whether the PM would look at ensuring that sick pay supported people during any future local lockdown.
The Prime Minister responded by explaining what the government has done so far. However, at the end of his answer, he seemed to give a policy commitment when he said “nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing”.
Most Cringeworthy Backbench Question:
Conservative Backbencher, Sarah Atherton, asked the first question in Prime Minister’s Questions. Not only was it the first, it was also clearly planted, allowing the PM to discuss his UK wide approach to the pandemic:
Atherton: “My constituents in Wrexham welcome the announcement by the chief medical officers of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England about reducing the UK covid alert level from 4 to 3. Indeed, through my work at the Wrexham Maelor Hospital, I have seen a reduction in the number of covid-positive cases needing to be treated. Does the Prime Minister therefore agree that the UK-wide approach works and we need to continue with it to beat the pandemic?”
Prime Minister: “First, I personally pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the shifts she has put in throughout the pandemic and of course thank all her colleagues at the Wrexham Maelor Hospital, which I know. Working together across all four nations of our country is indeed the way in which we will beat the pandemic.”