Keir Starmer has demanded that the government publish the scientific basis for the 10pm pub curfew or review the policy, in the clearest hint yet that Labour may not back its continuation in a vote next week.
In a fierce clash with Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, the Labour leader insisted he supported coronavirus restrictions such as the rule of six limit on social gatherings but said the government was “messing it up”.
He questioned why restrictions were not being imposed in southern areas – such as Hillingdon in the PM’s own constituency – despite infection rates being higher than those in northern regions subject to local lockdown.
One hundred days after the first local lockdown measures, Labour released new analysis showing that 19 out of 20 areas in England that have been under restrictions over the past two months have seen an increase in infection rates.
But Mr Johnson accused him of trying to “have it both ways” by claiming to back government measures but allowing his own MPs to abstain in a vote on the rule of six on Tuesday.
A sizeable Tory backbench rebellion against the national 10pm curfew on hospitality venues is expected in the House of Commons next week, potentially giving Labour the decisive role in determining whether the restriction should continue.
Sir Keir has so far played his cards close to his chest on whether Labour will back the continued imposition of the rule, oppose it or abstain.
But today he set a deadline for the PM to produce scientific evidence for its efficacy, raising expectations that he is ready to order Labour MPs to vote against.
“The prime minister can’t explain why an area goes into restriction, he can’t explain what the different restrictions are, he can’t explain how restrictions end,” Starmer told the Commons.
“This is getting ridiculous.
“Next week, this House will vote on whether to approve the 10pm rule. But the prime minister knows that there are deeply held views across the country in different ways on this.
“One question is now screaming out. Is there a scientific basis for the 10pm rule?
“The public deserves to know, parliament deserves to know. If there is, why doesn’t the government do itself a favour and publish it? If not, why doesn’t the government review the rule?
“So will the prime minister commit to publishing the scientific basis for the 10pm rule before this house votes on it next Monday?"
Mr Johnson replied: “The basis on which we set out the curtailment of hospitality was the basis on which he accepted it two weeks ago – that is to reduce the spread of the virus and that is our objective.”
On Labour abstaining from Tuesday’s vote, he added: “What kind of a signal does this send to the people of the country about the robustness of the Labour Party and their willingness to enforce the restrictions?
“That is not new leadership, that is no leadership.”
Starmer said that local communities “genuinely don’t understand” why restrictions had been imposed in areas like Kirklees, in West Yorkshire, when they hit an infection rate of 29 per 100,000 population, but Hillingdon faced no local limits with a rate of 62.
He pointed to areas under local restrictions since late July like Bolton, where the infection rate has increased by almost 13 times from 20 to 255 per 100,000, Burnley (increase of more than 20 times from 21 to 434) and Bury (increase by more than 13 times from 20 to 266).
“The prime minister really needs to understand that local communities are angry and frustrated," said the Labour leader.
“So will he level with the people of Bury, Burnley and Bolton and tell them: what does he think the central problem is that’s causing this?”
Mr Johnson said: "Although the cases … are considerably up across the country this week on last week – the seven-day statistics show that there are now 497 cases per 100,000 in Liverpool, 522 cases per 100,000 in Manchester, 422 in Newcastle – the key point is that the local, regional approach combined with the national approach remains correct, because two-thirds of those admitted into hospital on Sunday were in the morthwest, northeast and Yorkshire.”
He added: “I wish I could pretend that everything was going to be rosy in the Midlands or indeed in London where, alas, we are also seeing infections rise.
“That is why we need a concerted national effort, we need to follow the guidance, we need hands, face, space, get a test if you have symptoms and obey the rule of six.”
But Starmer accused him of governing “in hindsight”.
The Labour leader told the Commons: “If this was an isolated example, I think the British people might understand, but there’s a pattern here.
“On care homes, protective equipment, exams, testing. The prime minister ignores the warning signs, hurtles towards a car crash, then looks in the rear mirror, says ‘what’s all that about?’
“It’s quite literally government in hindsight.”
Sir Keir added: “All the prime minister has to say is it is too early to say if restrictions are working but it’s obvious that something’s gone wrong here, so what’s the prime minister going to do about it?”
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