Sir Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of “spraying money” at private companies for PPE and PR while letting down millions of self-employed people and thousands who have lost their jobs in the coronavirus pandemic.
In fiery exchanges at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, the Labour leader said the government had spent £130m this year on public relations consultants and had given £150m to private company Ayanda for 50m facemasks which turned out to be unusable.
But at the same time, he said 780,000 people had lost jobs since March, while 3m self-employed had fallen through the cracks of support schemes and received nothing from the government.
“The British people are paying the price for the mistakes of the prime minister and the chancellor,” said Starmer.
“If they’d given contracts to companies that could deliver, public money would have been saved. If they'd extended furlough sooner, jobs would have been saved. If they brought in a circuit breaker when the science said so, lives would have been saved.”
Mr Johnson retorted that it was contracts with private companies that had provided the personal protective equipment (PPE), tests and vaccines that will help the UK defeat the Covid pandemic.
And he claimed that the controversial vaccines taskfgrce’s £670,000 contract with a private firm for PR advice was necessary to raise awareness of vaccines and “fight the anti-vaxxers” and persuade people to take part in trials
“We are in the middle of a global pandemic, in which this government has so far secured and delivered 32 billion items of personal protective equipment,” said the prime minister.
“And yes, it is absolutely correct that it's been necessary to work with the private sector, with manufacturers who provide equipment such as this - some of them more effectively than others.
“But it's the private sector that in the end makes the PPE, it’s the private sector that provides the testing equipment and it’s the private sector - no matter how much the party opposite may hate them - that provides the vaccines and the scientific breakthroughs.”
Labour released a dossier showing monthly government spending on PR had increased dramatically from around £580,000 in January before the pandemic struck to reach £36.6m in July and £34.8m in September.
The amount did not include existing spend on special advisers and civil service press officers.
This year’s £130m spending went to a total of 23 communications consultancies, said Labour.
But the bulk of the money went to Manning Gottleib OMD, which is being paid £113m as part of a four-year media-buying deal worth £600m.
The party demanded transparency for the taxpayer on the spending, saying that “huge amounts" were committed to the contracts with little information on what was delivered.
Sir Keir told MPs that the £670,000 paid to PR firm Admiral by the vaccines task force was “the tip of the iceberg”.
And he asked: “Does the Prime Minister think that that’s a reasonable use of taxpayers’ money?”
Mr Johnson replied: "After days in which the Labour Party has attacked the vaccines task force, I think it might be in order for him to pay tribute to them for securing 40 million doses.“And by the way, the expenditure to which he refers was to help raise awareness of vaccines, to fight the anti-vaxxers and to persuade the people of this country – 300,000 – to take part in trials without which we can’t have vaccines."
The PM’s comments followed a poll in the Daily Mail which found little support for the so-called “anti-vaxx” campaign against inoculations, but revealed that 7 per cent of Britons say they will certainly not have a Covid jab and 11 per cent probably not.
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