The majority of today’s PMQs face-off between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer concerned the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in care homes, after the Office for National Statistics reported yesterday that over 8,000 care home residents have died of Covid-19 – a figure that is expected to rise in the coming weeks.
Boris Johnson’s weakest moments in the session were when Starmer criticised the policy of moving elderly patients from hospitals to care homes at the beginning of the crisis, before they received a negative coronavirus test. The leader of the Labour party quoted a cardiologist who claimed that suspected coronavirus cases were discharged from hospitals into care homes which were ill-equipped to deal with any outbreak. It seems that by attempting to avoid the NHS becoming overwhelmed with patients as Covid-19 began to spread, the outbreak in care homes was made considerably worse – and at some point the government will probably have to admit that this policy was a mistake.
But it was Boris Johnson’s response to a question about the government’s own guidance on care homes that has the potential to cause more immediate damage, and embarrassment, to the Prime Minister. In his opening remarks, Starmer pointed out that until 12 March, the UK government was still advising that people in care homes were unlikely to be infected by Covid-19. In response, Boris Johnson said that: ‘It wasn’t true that the advice said that.’
This was incorrect. According to the government’s own website, it withdrew official guidance on care homes on 13 March, which said that:
“‘This guidance is intended for the current position in the UK where there is currently no transmission of COVID-19 in the community. It is therefore very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected. This is the latest information and will be updated shortly.’
Starmer has now written to the Prime Minister, calling on him to return to the Commons to ‘correct the record’ after appearing to mislead the House.
— Heather Stewart (@GuardianHeather) May 13, 2020
It remains to be seen if the Prime Minister will be hauled back in front of the Chamber to atone for his mistake. The government could argue that the first half of the advice (helpfully missed out by Starmer) shows that the guidance was referring to the beginning of the outbreak in the UK – meaning when coronavirus began to spread in the community, it would no longer apply.
Even so, this is something of an own-goal by the Prime Minister, who probably should have worked out that Starmer was laying a trap when he quoted from the government guidance directly. Now that Jeremy Corbyn has been replaced by an effective Labour leader, the government will not get away with many mistakes like this from now on.
It also sums up how Keir Starmer is going to operate as leader of the opposition. Boris Johnson is generally much more effective at setting out a broad, political vision rather than being on top of the minutiae of government policy. Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, will attempt to take advantage of this by trying to pick apart government inconsistencies at the dispatch box. It’s a strategy that suits this relatively quiet, socially-distanced Commons Chamber, and allows the Labour leader to treat Boris Johnson like a defendant in a courtroom, without the distractions of the usual boisterous cheering of PMQs which suits the Prime Minister. So far, Starmer’s strategy appears to be working well.
Update: Boris Johnson has written to Keir Starmer accusing the Labour leader of ‘selectively and misleadingly’ quoting Public Health England advice by removing the first half of the quoted guidance. The PM will therefore not correct his statement.