Tories too busy ‘covering their own backs' to tackle Indian variant threat to 21 June reopening – Keir Starmer

The Leader of the opposition has lambasted the Conservatives over their handling of the spreading variant of Covid-19 first identified in India

Boris Johnson and his ministers are too busy “covering their own backs” to properly counter the threat posed by the Indian coronavirus variant, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer claimed.

Following Dominic Cummings’ explosive evidence about the Prime Minister’s handling of the pandemic, Starmer said “mistakes are being repeated” as the Government considers whether to further ease restrictions.

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Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer during the socially distanced State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament on 11 May (Photo: STEFAN ROUSSEAU/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“Weak, slow decisions on border policy let the Indian variant take hold,” he said. “Lack of self-isolation support and confused local guidance failed to contain it.

“We all want to unlock on 21 June but the single biggest threat to that is the Government’s incompetence.”

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‘Tens of thousands died unnecessarily’

Keir Starmer during a visit to Bristol on 27 May (Photo: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Writing in the Observer, Starmer said Johnson’s reluctance to impose a second lockdown in autumn last year meant “avoidable and unforgivable” deaths in the second wave of the virus.

“The first wave we faced was an unprecedented crisis. Decision making was undoubtedly difficult. Mistakes were inevitable. And the British public understands that. But by the summer, we knew much more about the virus.

“The Prime Minister was warned to prepare for a second wave. He did not do so. And over twice as many people died in the second wave than in the first.”

Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former adviser, told MPs on Wednesday that “tens of thousands” had died unnecessarily because of the Government’s handling of the pandemic, and accused Health Secretary Matt Hancock of lying about testing for care home residents discharged from hospital – a claim he denied.

Starmer said the situation in care homes had been a “betrayal”, adding: “We may never know whether Boris Johnson said Covid ‘was only killing 80-year olds’ when he delayed a second lockdown.

“What we do know is that the man charged with keeping them safe showed callous disregard for our elderly, as he overlooked the incompetence of his Health Secretary.”

Staff working ‘full pelt’ to tackle hospital waiting lists

Meanwhile, a health chief has called for a more informed debate on the planned lifting of all legal limits on social contact in England on 21 June.

The continued spread of the Indian coronavirus variant has prompted experts to argue restrictions should remain in place until more people have received both doses of a vaccine amid reports ministers are drawing up plans for a partial end of lockdown.

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson told BBC Breakfast a “much better quality of debate” was needed on the implications of easing measures.

He said hospitals were dealing with patients with complex needs who had delayed treatment earlier in the pandemic and now required longer stays, with staff “going full pelt” to deal with waiting lists.

As such, many do not have the space for a significant increase in Covid patients, he added.

“While it’s great news that the vaccinations are working – and I think that sends us one message in terms of opening up on 21 June – what we mustn’t forget is there are still lots of people who need to be vaccinated, and we know this variant that originated in India is much more transmissible,” Hopson said.

“So there is going to be a really difficult decision about how much we open up how quickly, and that’s why we’re calling really clearly this morning – let’s have the best quality of debate about what the trade-offs here are and let’s try, if I may be so bold, to have a rather better quality of evidence-based debate about how quickly we should ease the lockdown measures than perhaps we’ve had in previous phases.”

He also suggested the Government needs to consider the increased burden on hospitals in UK holiday hotspots in coming months, saying staff at trusts in such areas were “really worried” ahead of summer.

How is the vaccine rollout progressing?

It comes as new figures showed more than half of people in their 30s in England have received a coronavirus vaccination in a period of little over two weeks.

NHS England said that since it began opening up the vaccine rollout to this age group on 13 May, some 53 per cent of those aged 30 to 39 have been given at least one dose.

People aged 30 to 31 were the most recent group to be invited for their jab – from 26 May – with more than five million appointments made through the national booking service within 72 hours.

Current data suggests that although hospital admissions are rising in some parts of the country affected by the Indian variant, overall admissions remain broadly flat.

Meanwhile, the reproduction number – the R value – for England is 1 to 1.1, up from 0.9 and 1.1 the previous week, suggesting the epidemic is growing.

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