Keir Starmer pushes Boris Johnson for Covid public inquiry

Labour leader says investigation of ‘many mistakes that were made’ should start when restrictions end

Keir Starmer has joined calls for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and piled pressure on Boris Johnson to call a vote on plans to cut nearly 10,000 troops from the army.

The Labour leader said the independent investigation promised by the prime minister, but for which no start date has been set, should be launched “as soon as restrictions lift”.

“That is the only way we can get to the bottom of the many mistakes that were made during the pandemic and find justice for those who have suffered so much,” Starmer said at prime minister’s questions in the Commons.

Johnson, speaking publicly for the first time since crediting “greed” and “capitalism” with the success of the UK vaccination programme, in a private call with Tory MPs, urged all those offered a jab to accept, saying: “I encourage everybody to get it.”

He and other senior ministers have avoided confirming when the inquiry will begin, with Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, last week suggesting he thought it would be an “unwelcome distraction”, given that experts were focused on the next phase of vaccinations.

Labour MP Afzal Khan said he had lost “an entire generation” - including his mother, and father and mother-in-law “within days of one another”. “Grieving families like mine want and deserve to understand what happened and if anything could have been done to prevent this tragedy,” he added, urging for the inquiry to begin “as soon as current restrictions are lifted”.

Johnson sent his “sorrow” and sympathy to Khan. He explained: “We are of course committed, as soon as it’s right to do so, as soon as it wouldn’t be an irresponsible diversion of the energies of the key officials involved, we are ofc committed to an inquiry to learn the lessons, to make sure something like this can never happen again.”

Starmer also focused heavily on the government’s announcement this week that the army target size would be cut by 9,500 to 72,500 over the next five years.

He quoted from a Sun interview Johnson gave in the run-up to the 2019 election, where the Tory leader vowed: “We will not be cutting our armed forces in any form.”

Starmer said it was the latest in a pattern of broken promises and accused Johnson of “not having the courage to admit” he had made a U-turn, goading: “Did he ever intend to keep his promise to our armed forces?”

Johnson insisted there had been no cuts “if you include reserves” and defended the government for taking “some tough decisions” to protect the economy, laying into Starmer for supporting the previous Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

“He’s fighting the last war,” Starmer retorted, and suggested even a senior Tory MP, Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the defence select committee, predicted the government would lose if a vote was held on the cut to the number of tanks for the army, planes for the RAF and ships for the Royal Navy.

Despite Johnson’s protestations, Starmer said the prime minister was just “playing with the numbers” and added: “You just can’t trust the Conservatives to protect our armed forces” – prompting cries of indignation from the government benches.

After Starmer quoted a former chief of defence staff claiming that the new army’s size meant Britain would not be able to retake the Falklands if they were captured, Johnson retorted it was “hilarious” to be “lectured” on the South Atlantic islands by Labour and claimed the opposition was consistently weak on protecting the country.

It is likely Starmer seized on the issue of defence with this spring’s local elections in mind, and the topic is more painful for the government with reports in the Times that the Veterans’ Office is having its budget cut by 40%.

The clash between Johnson and Starmer on Wednesday was their last before parliament breaks up for Easter.


Aubrey Allegretti Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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