Government’s coronavirus response ‘way behind other European countries’, says Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

UK was ‘slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment’, says Labour leader at first PMQs

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 22 April 2020 12:30
Labour leader Keir Starmer accuses government of a 'slow' reaction to coronavirus

Sir Keir Starmer has accused the government of being “way behind other European countries” in its response to coronavirus, as Labour released a list of dozens of UK companies who say their offers of PPE were ignored.

In a fierce attack on the government’s handling of the crisis, the new Labour leader told MPs: “Something is going wrong. There is a pattern emerging.

“We were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment and now slow to take up these offers from British firms.”

In his first appearance at prime minister’s questions as leader, Sir Keir said the government was “behind the curve” on ramping up coronavirus testing and said its plans on personal protective equipment like facemasks and gowns were “clearly not working”.

But first secretary Dominic Raab – standing in for Boris Johnson at the first ever virtual session of PMQs – denied the government had been slow insisted that he was “confident” it will hit its target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month.

“I don’t accept his premise that we have been slow,” Mr Raab told a near-empty Commons chamber, with most MPs taking part via video link.

“We have been guided by scientific advice, by the chief scientific adviser and chief medical every step along the way. If he things he knows better than them with the benefit of hindsight, that’s his decision but it’s not the way we have proceeded and it’s not the way we will in the future.”

Labour said 36 companies had approached them to claim that offers of help to supply PPE had been ignored.

They included Issa Exchange Ltd in Birmingham which said it offered a quarter of a million aprons and masks, Network Medical Products in Ripon, which says it can provide 100,000 face visors per week and CQM Learning, which says it can provide 8,000 face shields per day.

Starmer told MPs that some of the companies were now supplying equipment to other countries abroad, so “they clearly could have supplied in this country”.

Meanwhile, care home workers were “terrified” at being forced to go in to work without adequate protection and demanded to know when PPE supplies could be guaranteed for every frontline worker.

“This has been a stress test of our resilience and the government plan is clearly not working,” said the Labour leader.

Only a few dozen MPs attended the first virtual PMQs

Mr Raab insisted that all 8,000 companies which responded to a government call for help with PPE had received a reply and 3,000 offers were being followed up.

Insufficient scrutiny of PPE abroad had led to medical staff being put at risk by faulty equipment, he said.

“I appreciate he wants to put pressure on and scrutinise the government but I hope he will understand the need to make the right decisions and scrutinise very carefully the precious PPE we are putting on the frontline,” said Mr Raab.

It was “not quite right” to say that supplies used overseas would automatically be acceptable for the UK, he said.

Sir Keir said he wanted to be “constructive” during the coronavirus crisis, but also to show “the courage to challenge where we think the government is getting it wrong”.

He said that the provision of tests had been “very slow”, leaving the UK “way behind other European countries”.

And he said that despite health secretary Matt Hancock’s promise of 100,000 daily tests, the actual figure was currently just 18,000.

“We’re way behind the curve and the end of the month is a week tomorrow,” said the Labour leader. “What does the first secretary expect to happen in the next eight days to get us from 18,000 tests a day to 100,000 tests a day?”

Mr Raab insisted that testing capacity had reached the “incredibly important milestone” of 40,000 a day.

“Getting capacity up is part of it and we are making good progress,” he said. “The issue of then increasing the demand is something we have got control of.”

Government was widening eligibility for testing beyond patients and NHS workers to include care home workers and other frontline professionals, as well as introducing mobile labs for those unable to travel to drive-through centres, he said. A third “superlab” would open in Cambridge next week to add to those in Milton Keynes and Cheshire.

But Starmer retorted: “There’s clearly a problem. Why isn’t the government using all the tests available every day?

“It’s not a question of driving up demand. Demand is there every day.”

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