Labour leader Keir Starmer today warns that plans to lift almost all Covid-19 restrictions on 21 June are at risk because of serial incompetence and “civil war” inside Boris Johnson’s government.
In his strongest attack for months on the prime minister’s handling of the pandemic, Starmer says that the huge death toll in the second wave of cases from last autumn, in which more than 80,000 lives were lost, was “avoidable and unforgivable” and the result of a failure to learn lessons from the early stages of the crisis.
Writing in the Observer after a week in which the PM’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, said Johnson was unfit to lead the country and had delayed lockdowns with fatal results last year, Starmer argues that the inability to fix the contact tracing and self-isolation support systems, and lack of adequate border controls to prevent the spread of the India variant, all amounted to serious, inexcusable personal failures of leadership.
As scientists warn today about the dangers of easing locking too early, Starmer says the level of incompetence and infighting within government raises doubts about whether the 21 June “big bang” release from lockdown will happen.
“In the first wave we faced an unprecedented crisis. Decision making was undoubtedly difficult. Mistakes were inevitable. And the British public understand that,” he writes. “But by the summer, we knew much more about the virus. The prime minister was warned to prepare for a second wave. He did not do so. And over twice as many people died in the second wave than in the first. That was avoidable and unforgivable.
“The failure to fix contact tracing and self-isolation support? Avoidable. The weak border policy which re-imported the virus? Avoidable. The delays to lockdown – not once, not twice, but three times? Avoidable.
“That was a failure of leadership. A failure to take the tough decisions needed to keep people safe. That failure lies with the prime minister. It goes to the heart of his character and fitness for office. As the second wave grew, his refusal to take advice or recognise past mistakes had devastating consequences.”
He adds: “We all want to unlock on 21 June but the single biggest threat to that is the government’s incompetence. With variant cases doubling in a week and scientists raising concerns, Johnson and his ministers should be relentlessly focused on reducing infections. Instead, they are distracted yet again by melodrama, civil war and covering their own backs.”
On Friday, Britain recorded more than 4,000 coronavirus cases for the first time since the end of March, as the weekly total rose by 24%. Almost three-quarters of new cases were the variant first detected in India.
Ministers are now examining options for a more limited reopening as they await more data and try to accelerate the vaccine programme.
Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University said: “It is clear we are in the foothills of an increase in cases. The question is how steep is the slope and how high will be its peak? In other words, will it threaten the NHS? We don’t know yet but we should learn the answer in a week or so.”
Professor Adam Finn of Bristol University said that if at the end of next week there were 6,000 Covid cases and a week after that there were 12,000, then alarm bells would start to ring. “We will have to think twice about lifting restrictions because it will be clear we will be on the back of a very rapidly rising wave of infections,” said Finn.
However, scientists says Britain’s successful vaccine programme could prevent rapidly rising numbers of cases being translated into large numbers of hospitalisations. “The vaccine rollout is going very well,” added Woolhouse. “However, it is now imperative that we go even faster.”
Finn added: “21 June is only three weeks away, and if we find hospitalisations shooting up we will have to think very fast – or face another lockdown this summer.”
An Opinium poll for the Observer found that 43% of people now support postponing of the 21 June lockdown easing, which many Tory MPs are desperate to maintain. This compares with 34% who think the easing should go ahead as planned. One in 10 back bringing the date forward.
Overall, two-thirds (66%) of the public believe the government acted too slowly in responding to Covid, compared with 28% who think it did act fast enough. Opinion differs at different stages of the crisis. Some 69% think ministers did not act quickly enough with the first lockdown last March, 62% believe they were too slow with the second lockdown in the autumn, while 67% thought actions were too slow around Christmas.
Despite the concerns about the June unlocking, there is still huge support for the government’s handling of the vaccine programme, with 71% of the public still approving of the supply and provision of the vaccine, compared with just 9% who disapprove.
After Cummings gave evidence to MPs last week, the Conservative lead over Labour has fallen to six points from 13 a week earlier, according to Opinium. The Conservatives are on 42% (down two points) while Labour is up five at 36%.