40-day delay cost the lives of thousands

Labour joins experts in laying bare the human costs of the Tories’ inaction

By Lamiat Sabin

LIVES could have been saved if the government had acted earlier to impose a national coronavirus lockdown in England, Sir Keir Starmer said today.

The Labour leader took Prime Minister Boris Johnson to task in the Commons over his 40-day delay to implement a “circuit-breaker” that the government’s own Sage scientists recommended in September.

Sir Keir pointed out that on September 21, when the scientists recommended an urgent two- to three-week lockdown, there were 11 deaths from Covid-19 and just over 4,000 new infections.

The Labour leader said that on Saturday, when Mr Johnson finally announced a month-long lockdown, the daily figure had increased to 326 deaths and 22,000 new cases.

Sir Keir said: “That is the human cost of the government’s inaction.”

It came after the PM warned that the number of deaths linked to coronavirus this winter could be double the number seen during the pandemic’s first wave without the new lockdown.

Mr Johnson had to try to justify the decision to impose a month-long lockdown in England from Thursday in an attempt to ward off a Tory rebellion when MPs vote on the legislation tomorrow.

About 12 Tories are set to reject the legislation, though Labour and the Lib Dems have indicated that they will largely back it.

In response, Sir Keir said that Mr Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak — who had also rejected calls from government scientific advisers to impose a second lockdown — had failed to learn the “central lesson” from the pandemic’s first wave.

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“As a result, this lockdown will be longer than it needed to be, at least four weeks. It will be harder — we’ve just missed half-term —and the human cost will be higher,” he said.

Sir Keir’s accusations came after Professor Andrew Hayward, a scientist advising the government’s coronavirus response, said that thousands of lives would have been saved if Mr Johnson had imposed a short lockdown when scientists recommended it in September. He said the move would also have “inflicted substantially less damage” to the economy than the new national lockdown.

Having delayed a lockdown despite pressure from scientists, opposition parties and unions, Mr Johnson said that there was now no alternative but to urge people to stay at home unless necessary for work that cannot be done from home, school, exercise, caring duties, emergencies and food shopping.

He added that the national lockdown, if approved by MPs, will automatically expire next month and England will return to regional tiered restrictions. He said that the Commons “will have a vote to agree the way forward.”

His scheduled speech in Parliament reiterated many of the measures that he was forced to announce on Saturday night because the press had got hold of the story.

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, in opening the Commons session, said that should it transpire that an MP was responsible for the leak, he hoped “that member will make a full apology to the house.”

During the session, Mr Johnson announced increased support for the self-employed — he had previously announced an extension to the furlough scheme on Saturday, its last day, as the majority of pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops will be forced to close. Support for the self-employed will be doubled from 40 per cent to 80 per cent of trading profits under the self-employed income support scheme, he said.

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Green Party MP Caroline Lucas welcomed the announcement but added that it “does nothing for the three million self-employed and freelancers who have been left out of previous schemes and are still excluded.”

She urged Mr Johnson to acknowledge that the minimum income floor under universal credit “discriminates against anyone with an unpredictable and variable income” and urged him to “delay its impending reintroduction.”

The PM said that “her point is one that the government is looking at actively at the moment.”

Published at morningstaronline.co.uk