PMQs verdict: Boris Johnson’s act that ‘unseemly’ Covid testing critique is traducing NHS angels is wearing thin

I’m sorry to break this news to the PM, but that act where he pretends anyone who criticises the testing shambles is guilty of traducing the angels of the NHS is… well, wearing a bit thin.

This week the PM took it to new levels of nonsense by making out that it was somehow a terrible personal attack on Dido Harding, the so-so boss of NHS Test & Trace . “I must say that the continual attacks by the opposition on Dido Harding are unseemly and unjustified,” cried Boris Johnson after Sir Keir Starmer pointed out that she had said something different to the Health Secretary.

A quick reality check is needed here: Baroness Harding is not some shy ingénue dragged kicking into the political spotlight. She is a former mobile phone company chief who owes her seat in the House of Lords to being part of Dave’s chumocracy at Oxford. Neither is she a fingers-worked-to-the-bone professor of epidemiology nor a penniless-but-devoted NHS nurse, both of whom might deserves a break if they screw up.

No, she’s a baron’s daughter, married to a Tory MP, a card-carrying member of the governing party who has a job for life as a lawmaker on the Conservative benches of the unelected Upper House. In other words, she is a politician – and it is hard to imagine any public servant more deserving of fair scrutiny and perhaps a gentle duffing over if she makes a mess.

Sir Keir wasn’t after her, in any case. Only the PM was in his crosshairs when he stood up for his first question at PMQs.

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“Three months ago today, the prime minister said test and trace can be a real game changer for us,” said Labour’s leader. “Yesterday, the Prime Minister said the complete opposite. Both positions cannot be right. Which one is it Prime Minister?” The apparent contradiction refers to a comment made by the PM in the chamber when he declared that testing and tracing has “very little or nothing to do with the spread and transmission” of coronavirus.” Starmer was not the only observer to be utterly baffled by these words.

Johnson breezily responded. “It is an obvious fact of biology and epidemiology that alas, this disease is transmitted by human contact or aerosol contact.” While true in itself, the reply made no sense.

The PM continued: “But it is one of the great advantages of NHS Test and Trace, which we did not have working earlier in the pandemic, that we now have the ability to see in granular detail where the epidemic is breaking out, exactly which groups are being infected.

“That’s why we’ve been able to deliver the local lockdowns and that’s why we’re able to tell at this stage that it is necessary to take the decisive action we are … to drive the virus down, keep kids in school and keep our economy moving.” In other words, test and trace has everything to do with beating coronavirus.

Sir Keir replied: “Pretending there isn’t a problem is part of the problem, Prime Minister.”

Sir Keir in the Commons (PA)

Labour’s leader is at his most effective when in prosecutor mode. Jabbing his left hand for effect, he revealed to the squirming defendant that his witnesses had given contradictory evidence. “Is the explanation from the PM that we haven’t got enough capacity because nobody could have expected the rise in demand? That’s the Dido Harding defence. Or is it we’ve got all the capacity we need, it is just that people are being unreasonable in asking for tests? That’s the Hancock defence. So which is it?”

There was no good answer to this, which is perhaps why the Prime Minister rose up to declare in his best Captain Renault impression that he was shocked to find Lady Harding’s name being traduced in an unseemly manner.

Johnson waved his arms in despair that political discourse could sink to such depths. He reproached Sir Keir: “What I frankly want to hear is more of the spirit of togetherness that we had yesterday.” Yesterday was when the Opposition meekly nodded through the new anti-Covid measures, asking neither for Sturgeon-style lockdown nor for jobs-friendly exemptions.

Starmer hotly replied: “My wife works for the NHS, my mother worked for the NHS, my sister works the NHS so I’m not going to take lectures from the Prime Minister on supporting the NHS.”

He said one in eight schoolchildren were off because there weren’t enough tests to show if everyday coughs were colds or Covid-19. “How on earth did we get into this mess?”

The Prime Minister claimed 99.9 per cent of our schools “are now back” and could not resist adding, “in spite of all his attempts throughout the summer to sow doubt on the idea that schools are safe”.

Boris Johnson ()

Starmer objected: “That is such a poor defence.” He argued at length that it didn’t matter whether a child had Covid symptoms or symptoms of other diseases if they were off school as a result.” Actually, it does matter. The Government’s policy is that kids without Covid symptoms should not have tests, because tests are scarce. Labour’s position is to say nothing about whether kids should have those scarce tests, but to decry the fact that tests are scarce in the first place. The public ear is sharp enough to detect that Sir Keir’s position is one of decrying rather than choosing. And this is why the PM continually accuses Starmer of carping from the sidelines. He has a point.

For his final tilts, Starmer protested that the ending of furloughing next month was coinciding with a new partial lockdown. “Health measures and economic measures are now dangerously out of sync.”

Johnson is on confident ground on supporting jobs – the Treasury having splurged £160 billion so far during the crisis. “And we will go forward with further creative an imaginative schemes to keep our economy moving,” said the PM, fuelling expectations that Furlough II is in the wings.

Starmer quoted business leaders and unions pleading for the Government not to withdraw furloughing (although even the shadow chancellor wants it replacing with something more targeted). “When is the Prime Minister finally going to act?”

Johnson ended by gloating again that for all his fury about testing, Sir Keir had actually backed the new measures. “I hope he will in a spirit of togetherness and unity continue to give it his support,” the PM purred.


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