The prime minister Boris Johnson has failed to deny that as many as 3.5 million people a week will be forced into self-isolation by his decision to scrap all coronavirus restrictions on 19 July.
Mr Johnson was pressed repeatedly in the House of Commons to spell out forecasts of the numbers of deaths, hospitalisations and self-isolation orders, after the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said that Covid-19 infections were set to soar to 100,000 a day following the end of mandatory face-masks and social distancing.
Accusing the PM of a “reckless” approach that would deliver a “summer of chaos and confusion”, Sir Keir Starmer told MPs: “It won’t feel like freedom day for those who are having to isolate.”
And he warned that Mr Johnson’s approach would undermine the track and trace system, as people delete the NHS app in order to avoid being “pinged” after coming into contact with infected people.
The clash came as it emerged that charges for lateral flow tests could be introduced next month.
The Department of Health and Social Care said that the quick-turnaround home-testing kits are only guaranteed to be free to the end of July, with a decision “forthcoming” on whether to introduce payments.
The potential U-turn comes just three months after the launch of a high-profile campaign urging everybody to test themselves twice a week, under the headline, “Let’s take this next step safely.”
In fiery exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, Mr Johnson was twice rebuked by the speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, after dodging questions over the implications of his big-bang plans to end all restrictions on 19 July.
The PM claimed his approach was “prudent” because scientific evidence showed that vaccines had “severed the link” between infection and serious illness or death.
Sir Keir retorted that the link had in fact been “weakened, but it hasn’t been broken”, meaning that the surge in infections following 19 July is likely to push up hospitalisations, deaths and cases of long Covid as well as increasing the risk of dangerous new mutations.
The Labour leader said that the relaxations were being introduced at a time when cases in the UK were soaring “because the prime minister let the Delta variant – and we can call it the Johnson variant – into the country”.
Citing estimates that between 2 million and 3.5 million people a week could be forced into self-isolation over the summer, Sir Keir asked: “Is the prime minister really comfortable with a plan that means 100,000 people catching this virus, every day, and everything that that entails?”
He accused the PM of trying to “wish away” the practical problems for families and businesses.
“It won’t feel like freedom day to those who have to isolate, when they’re having to cancel their holidays, when they can’t go to the pub or even to their kids’ sports day,” said Sir Keir.
“And it won’t feel like freedom day to the businesses who are already warning of carnage because of the loss of staff and customers.”
Sir Keir said it was “entirely predictable” that many people would delete the NHS Covid app from their phones in order to avoid being told to self-isolate.
“What is the prime minister going to do to stop people deleting the NHS app because they can see precisely what he can’t see, which is that millions of people are going to be pinged this summer to self-isolate?” he asked.
Mr Johnson made no attempt to deny forecasts of millions of people going into self-isolation over the summer.
Instead, he demanded to know which of the new freedoms – including reopening nightclubs, lifting attendance limits at mass events, removing work-from-home instructions and abolishing legal requirements to wear masks and maintain social distancing – Labour would reverse.
He told MPs that his approach, unveiled on Monday, was “cautiously prudent, moving from a legal diktat to allowing people to take personal responsibility for their actions”.
Sir Keir responded that Labour wanted to “open in a controlled way and keep baseline protections that could keep down infections, like mandatory face masks on public transport”.
“We all want restrictions lifted,” said the Labour leader. “We want our economy open. We want to get back to normal. But we’ve been here too many times before.
“Isn’t it the case that once again, instead of a careful, controlled approach, we’re heading for a summer of chaos and confusion?”
Mr Johnson rejected the allegation, and insisted that the decision to reopen had been taken in a “balanced and cautious” way.
Pointing at Sir Keir, he told MPs: “If we listened to him, we would not now be proceeding – cautiously, pragmatically, sensibly – to reopen our society and our economy and give people back the chance to enjoy the freedoms they love.”
In an attempt to revive his earlier “we vaccinate, they vacillate” slogan, the PM concluded the clash with the jibe at Labour: “We inoculate, while they are invertebrate.”
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