Keir Starmer has called on the prime minister to “get a grip” of the coronavirus crisis and accused the government of making “a difficult situation ten times worse”.
The Labour leader’s stinging attack on Boris Johnson’s weak leadership and mismanagement of the pandemic comes in an “exclusive interview” published by the Guardian at 9.00pm on Tuesday – precisely 30 minutes before the Daily Telegraph published their “Exclusive: Boris Johnson takes back control of coronavirus crisis with Downing Street shake-up”, at 9.30pm.
The two leaders face-off over the ballot box for PMQs at high noon today (Wednesday) with Starmer warning: “I am putting the prime minister on notice that he has got to get a grip and restore public confidence in the government’s handling of the epidemic.”
‘There’s a growing concern the government’s winging it’ – Starmer
It marks a sharp shift in tone from the Labour leader whose approach to date has been more measured and cautious when criticising the government’s management of the crisis.
However, the Dominic Cummings affair combined with mixed-messaging around lifting lockdown, problems with daily testing figures and the rushed launch of the ‘test and trace’ system, has damaged public trust and confidence in the government’s ability to manage the crisis at a crucial moment.
Starmer said that “after a week or more of mismanagement, I’m deeply concerned the government has made a difficult situation ten times worse”, adding: “There is a growing concern the government is now winging it.”
PM is ‘too weak to sack’ Cummings, says Starmer
“If we see a sharp rise in the R rate, the infection rate, or a swathe of local lockdowns, responsibility for that falls squarely at the door of No 10,” said Starmer.
“We all know the public have made huge sacrifices. This mismanagement of the last few weeks is the responsibility of the government.”
Starmer questioned whether the timing of some decisions was “to try to deflect attention away” from Cummings and added: “It’s blindingly obvious to me that the prime minister is just too weak to sack [him].”
Johnson to take direct control of the crisis
Just half an hour after the Starmer interview was published, a rebuttal of sorts appeared with the Telegraph’s exclusive claiming the PM is “to take ‘direct control’ of the” crisis after “a chaotic fortnight”.
The Downing Street shake-up will see the government’s “entire approach to the pandemic” run by two committees covering strategy and operational delivery – changes that some Tory MPs say, could weaken Cummings’ influence.
The strategy committee – to be dubbed CS – will be chaired by the PM with Michael Gove chairing the new operations committee, called CO. They replace the four ministerial implementation groups that were set up at the start of the pandemic and covered economy and business, health, foreign affairs and public services.
The daily Covid-19 committee meeting, held every morning at No10 will be scrapped, as too the weekend press briefings – because of low ratings.
The changes will, the Telegraph states, “free up some of the Prime Minister’s top team to focus on the Brexit talks ahead of a crucial deadline” about extending the transition period.