Even the most ghastly events normally have some minor, beneficial upside and now, alongside improved global air quality and the abolition of the BBC Question Time audience, we can add PMQs to the list of things made better by coronavirus. The tone was always going to serious and sombre given the nature of the crisis facing the country. (Every single question was about coronavirus, by my count.) But the effect of holding it in a near-empty chamber also made a difference because there was no cheering or barracking. Boris Johnson had no noise cushion to help him through. It meant that what he said mattered more.
Johnson was pressed repeatedly, especially by Jeremy Corbyn, by Ian Blackford and most effectively of all by Chris Byrant, on what he was doing to help workers who will lose out from coronavirus and he was on slightly shaky ground. Ministers insist they will announce a package of employment support measures very soon, and Johnson repeatedly insisted that people should not lose out for doing the right thing (ie, for staying at home, even if they feel well) and he repeatedly said that he was willing to do whatever it took. To some extent, that still sounded more like a slogan than a strategy.
But PMQs should also been an opportunity for the prime minister to listen, as well as to communicate, and one would imagine than Johnson would have left the chamber more persuaded than ever about the need for some mass government intervention to protect workers. If Felicity Buchan, a Kensington Tory with a background in banking, is saying that the government does not need to worry about borrowing any more (see 12.29pm), then it is hard to see what is restraining No 10.
Johnson has a proper announcement to make during the session. In response to a question from Corbyn, he confirmed that the government would legislate to protect renters from eviction during the coronavirus crisis. He told MPs:
I can indeed confirm that we will be bringing forward legislation to protect private renters from eviction, that is one thing we will do, but it is also important as we legislate that we do not simply pass on the problem, so we’ll also be taking steps to protect other actors in the economy.
Johnson also announced that coronavirus testing was being ramped up to 25,000 tests a day. And, although he did not reveal what the government’s employment support measures would involve, his answers on this were intriguing. He did not dismiss out of hand the temporary universal basis income idea floated by Blackford, or Bryant’s call for a handout in the form of a summer version of the winter fuel payment.
Johnson was also interesting on the subject of schools. He told MPs:
The house should expect further decisions to be taken imminently on schools and how to make sure we square the circle both of making sure we stop the spread of the disease but also making sure we relieve, as much as we can, pressure on our NHS.
That sounded very much like a hint that the government will announce a partial closure of schools, with some provision being kept open – perhaps for children of key workers, or perhaps with schools in childminding rather than education mode? – to minimise the impact on the NHS.