Boris Johnson was challenged by Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions over the Government’s plans to end almost all lockdown restrictions on 19 July.
On Monday, plans were announced for the end of legal rules on social distancing and the wearing of face coverings from 19 July. It was also announced that remaining venues including nightclubs would be allowed to reopen on the same date, without there being coronavirus-related entry requirements mandated by law.
Some have welcomed the announced plans for the so-called ‘Freedom Day’, though others have raised concerns, with it being projected that as many as 100,000 people a day could contract COVID-19 in the UK later this summer.
Challenging the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), Sir Keir Starmer said that the Government’s plans were reckless and argued for mitigations such as the wearing of face coverings, particularly on public transport, to remain mandatory. The Labour leader argued that such “common sense” measures would help reduce the potential number of new infections and would not damage the economy.
The Prime Minister said that the Government could see that it is “common sense for people in confined spaces to wear a face mask out of respect and courtesy to others” but said the Government was moving from “legal diktat to allowing people to take personal responsibility for their actions”.
During the exchanges, concerns were also raised over the number of people that may be asked to self-isolate, and whether adequate support was being offered for those people.
Talking about the recent surge in cases of COVID-19 in the UK, Starmer said “The Prime Minister let the Delta, or we can call it the Johnson variant, into the country”. Previously, Labour has accused the Government of being too slow to implement travel restrictions to stop the importation of new virus variants and have raised concerns about some not being stringent enough.
Throughout the exchanges between Starmer and Johnson, the Prime Minister repeatedly asked Starmer what he supported and his views on the ending of lockdown restrictions. In doing so, Johnson dodged a number of questions, including on how many people may be asked to self-isolate or may suffer from long-COVID, leading to an intervention by the Speaker of the Commons, who reminded the Prime Minister that the session was Prime Minister’s Questions, not Opposition Questions.
Sir Kier Starmer said the country is “heading for a summer of chaos and confusion”, while Mr Johnson said, “we vaccinate, they vacillate”.
The plans announced this week would see England move very much to a model where the general public is in control. Supporters of the plan believe it is the right thing to do, after over a year of tough restrictions – others fear the plans could lead to large numbers isolating and could lead to some becoming seriously ill.
Labour’s idea to keep “common sense” mitigations in place will no doubt be welcomed by some, but the Prime Minister was able to claim in PMQs that the opposition had no clear alternative plan to the Government’s plan for ending restrictions.
The approach of “living with COVID” seems likely to play out over the coming months – though whether it will be successful or manageable remains to be seen.