BORIS JOHNSON and Sir Keir Starmer went head to head over the virus crisis yesterday, with the Labour leader taking the PM to task over thousands of unexplained deaths in care homes.
Sir Keir challenged his opponent to explain why, leaving aside about 8,000 fatalities officially linked to Covid-19, a further 10,000 more residents than usual had died during April.
He also said Mr Johnson had misled the Commons by denying care homes had been advised in February that residents were ‘very unlikely’ to become infected with the virus.
He said he should return to the House to explain himself but the PM accused him of playing politics amid the national emergency. He said: ‘I would remind you of the commitment you made when you became leader of the opposition to work constructively with the government in the face of this unprecedented pandemic.
‘I have sought to build the maximum political consensus behind our response. I hope it remains your position to pursue that same consensus.’
Mr Johnson announced a £600million fund for infection control in care homes as the official number of UK virus deaths — patients who have been diagnosed by a test — rose 494 to 33,186.
As well as pressing him over the unexplained deaths, Sir Keir asked why graphs comparing the fatality rate in Britain and overseas have been dropped from the daily Downing Street briefing.
‘It is pretty obvious that for seven weeks — when we did not have the highest number in Europe — the slides were used for comparison purposes,’ Sir Keir said at prime minister’s questions.
‘And as soon as we hit that unenviable place, they have been dropped.’
Mr Johnson claimed comparisons were ‘premature’ because figures for increases in other countries’ death rates were not yet available.
‘We do not yet have that data,’ he said. ‘Now, I am not going to try to pretend to the House that the figures, when finally confirmed, are anything other than stark and deeply, deeply horrifying. This has been an appalling epidemic.’
Sir Keir also asked the PM why advice from Public Health England that care home residents were ‘very unlikely’ to become infected was not withdrawn until March 13.
Mr Johnson denied homes had been given that advice — but the Labour leader later wrote to him quoting from the guidance and demanding that he put the record straight.
The PM then wrote back — accusing Sir Keir of being misleading himself.
He pointed out that the advice made clear it only applied as long as the virus had not spread widely in the UK — as was the case in February.
‘I am disappointed that in the House today you chose to quote Public Health England advice selectively and misleadingly,’ Mr Johnson said.
He told the Commons that there had now been an ‘appreciable and substantial’ fall in care home deaths, adding: ‘Solving the problem in care homes is going to be absolutely critical. We must fix it, and we will.’
Dr Jennie Harries — the deputy chief medical officer — admitted some of the excess deaths in care homes would have been undiagnosed coronavirus. But at the daily Downing Street press conference she backed the PM’s claim that it was too early to make international comparisons.
‘The pandemic is still moving at different times through different countries, so the time to do this on an international scale will be to look back, probably in 12 months hence, and then do the comparison,’ she said.
The position was slammed by former World Health Organization director Professor Anthony Costello.
‘This graph has been shown for seven weeks,’ he tweeted. ‘Doctors should not support political manipulation of data.’
Challenged over the advice to care homes, Dr Harries told Metro that it was based on the best available evidence at the time. ‘And I think at that time we did not recognise there was any sustained community transmission — we clearly had cases around,’ she added.
However, more than a week before the advice was changed, chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty had told MPs it was ‘highly likely’ the infection was being spread in the community.
Sir Keir’s Commons challenge over the care home deaths came a day after more up-to-date statistics showed there had been more than 40,000 UK virus fatalities overall.
Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificates of the victims but not necessarily confirmed by a test. The figures also showed that more than 50,000 people had died than normal since the start of the pandemic.
The official count puts care home corona deaths at fewer than 10,000.
But the true toll could be 22,000 as many residents die in hospital, London School of Economics experts said.