Keir Starmer has led on accusations of the government’s slow response to the coronavirus at Prime Minister’s Questions – and outwitted Dominic Raab at his first outting.
Labour’s new leader and foreign secretary Raab – deputising for Boris Johnson as the prime minister continued his recovery from Covid-19 – faced each other in a sparsely attended House of Commons as the majority of MPs participated remotely.
Sir Keir questioned how the government would ramp that up to 100,000 tests a day in just eight days’ time – particularly as some care workers and NHS staff could only be tested if they could drive to a site.
He pointed out how the latest figures showed that less than half of the available capacity was being used and fewer than 20,000 tests had been carried out in a 24-hour period.
Starmer said: ‘The health secretary made a very important commitment to 100,000 tests per day by the end of April but yesterday the figures for actual tests was 18,000 which was down from Monday which was 19,000.
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‘So, we are way behind the curve and the end of the month is a week tomorrow. What does the first secretary expect to happen in the next eight days to get us from 18,000 tests a day to 100,000?’
Raab, however, tried to correct the figures Starmer gave, by responding: ‘I do have to correct him. Our capacity is now 40,000 tests a day which is an important milestone. And of course he’s right to say that in the final week that will require a big increase.
‘I can reassure him that we are working with a range of commercial partners to boost the testing to get to that 100,000 a day.’
But the Labour leader hit back: ‘I didn’t need correcting because I gave the figure for the actual tests a day. The first secretary says there’s capacity for 40,000 a day.
‘That means that the day before yesterday 40,000 tests could have been carried out but only 18,000 tests were actually carried out.
‘Why isn’t the government using all the tests available, every day?’
Slamming the government response, he later added: ‘There is a pattern emerging here. We were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment and now slow to take up these offers from British firms.’
Raab hid behind the scientific advisers in defending the government’s response, by claiming that if Sir Keir ‘thinks he knows better than they do, with the benefit of hindsight, then that’s his decision’.
The foreign secretary said ‘those tests will be crucial not just in terms of controlling the virus but allowing the country to move to the next phase’.
He said mobile labs were now being used, with the Army also helping to get tests to where they were needed.