Keir Starmer – 2021 Speech on Covid-19 in the House of Commons

The speech made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 27 January 2021.

I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement. To lose 100,000 people to this virus is nothing short of a national tragedy. It is a stark number: an empty chair at the kitchen table; a person obviously taken before their time. Today, we should remember that, and we should mark the moment by learning the lessons of the last year to make sure that the same mistakes are not made again.

Of course, any Government would have struggled with this pandemic—I get that and the British people get that—but the reality is that Britain is the first country in Europe to suffer 100,000 deaths, and we have one of the highest death rates in the world. The Prime Minister often says that he has been balancing the health restrictions against economic risks, but that simply does not wash, because alongside that high death toll we also have the deepest recession of any major economy and the lowest growth of any major economy, and we are on course to have one of the slowest recoveries of any major economy.

So for all the contrition and sympathy that the Prime Minister expresses, and I recognise how heartfelt that is, the truth is that this was not inevitable—it was not just bad luck. It is the result of a huge number of mistakes by the Prime Minister during the course of this pandemic. We were too slow into lockdown last March, too slow to get protective equipment to the front line and, of course, too slow to protect our care homes—20% of deaths in this pandemic have come from care home residents. I really do not think that the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary understand just how offensive it was to pretend that there was a protective ring around our care homes.

The Government had the chance over the summer to learn from those mistakes in the first wave and prepare for a second wave and a challenging winter. I put that challenge to the Prime Minister in June, but that chance was wasted. The Government then went on to fail to deliver an effective test, trace and isolate system, despite all the warnings. They failed to deliver clear and reliable public messaging, crucial in a pandemic—one minute telling people to go to work, then to do the complete opposite.

The Prime Minister has failed on a number of occasions to follow the scientific advice that the virus was getting out of control. First, in September, when that advice was given, they failed to implement a circuit break or lockdown over half-term as we suggested. Then in December, we had the fiasco over Christmas mixing. Once again, we had the 13-day delay from 22 December, when that further medical advice was given, to when the third national lockdown was finally introduced. As a result, we have seen a third wave more deadly than the first and second waves. Fifty thousand people have died since 11 November. That is 50,000 deaths in 77 days. That is a scarcely believable toll on the British people.

In isolation, any of these mistakes are perhaps understandable. Taken together, it is a damning indictment of how the Government have handled this pandemic. The Prime Minister says, “Well, now is not the time to answer the question why.” That is the answer he gave back in the summer after the first wave. He said the same after the second wave, and he says it again now, each time repeating the mistakes over and over again. That is why now is the time to ask and answer the question why.

The way out of this nightmare has now been provided by our amazing scientists, our NHS, our armed forces and hundreds of thousands of volunteers. The vaccine programme is making incredible progress. The British people have come together to deliver what is the largest peacetime effort in our history. Despite the Prime Minister’s constant complaining, all of us—all of us—are doing whatever we can to help the vaccine roll out as swiftly and as safely as possible.

On schools, first I have to say that even for this Prime Minister it is quite something to open schools one day and close them the next, to call them vectors of transmission and then to challenge me to say that the schools he has closed are safe, only now to give a statement where he says that schools cannot open until 8 March at the earliest because it is not safe to do so. That is his analysis. It is the sort of nonsense that has led us to the highest death toll in Europe and the worst recession.

We of course welcome any steps forward in reopening schools, and we will look at the detail of how the Education Secretary plans to deliver that and the plans to deliver online learning. I also hope that the Prime Minister will take seriously our proposal—echoed, incidentally, by the Children’s Commissioner and the Conservative Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—that once the first four categories of the most vulnerable have been vaccinated by mid-February, he should bring forward the vaccination of key workers and use that window of the February half-term to vaccinate all school staff, including every teacher and teaching assistant. There is a clear week there when that could be done, and it should be done.

On borders, we will look at the detail—

Mr Speaker

Order. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s comments are coming to an end; he is well past the five minutes allocated.

Keir Starmer

On borders, we will look at the Prime Minister’s statement in detail, and obviously hear what the Home Secretary has to say, but in due course there will be a public inquiry. The Prime Minister will have to answer the question. I hope that he can finally answer this very simple and direct question, because yesterday he was maintaining that the Government had done

“everything we could to save lives.”

Is he really saying to those grieving families that their loss was just inevitable and that none of the 100,000 deaths could have been avoided?