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The elephant in the chamber

PMQs is failing to explore whether the government’s Covid strategy makes sense

It is one of the customary complaints about PMQs that it is a weekly bout of shadow boxing, whilst the real blows are struck by, and to, government elsewhere. Covid-19 has not changed that perception. Increasingly – to the annoyance of Tory backbenchers at least – parliament itself seems incidental to the massive extension of unchecked executive power with which the crisis has armed the government.

Keir Starmer’s policy of “constructive opposition” involves backing the government’s strategy whilst lambasting the patchy manner of its delivery. There may be much to be said in favour of this approach – certainly as shrewd political positioning – and also in the laudable intent it demonstrates of showing a common front in a time of national alarm.

It ensures PMQs is about the detail of delivery (territory that naturally suits the prosecutor for the Opposition) and less about the grand sweep of policy. But that grand sweep needs probing and at PMQs it is not getting it.

For the third week running, the failings of test and trace to process most applications within 24 hours drove the Opposition’s line of attack. And for the third week running, the prime minister brushed aside justifiable complaints with the observation that the UK was testing more than any other country in Europe and will be able to process half a million tests a day by the end of October – which, if achieved, would indeed be impressive.

Starmer attempted to catch the prime minister out by contrasting his initial expectation that test and trace would be a game-changer with his statement yesterday that “testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or transmission of the disease.” Both positions could not be right, so “which one is it, prime minister?”

“It is an obvious fact of biology and epidemiology” Johnson helpfully explained, “that alas this disease is transmitted by human or aerosol contact.” Test and trace could not stop that. What it does provide is monitoring for where it is spreading, enabling the isolation of those carrying it, and the targeted implementation of local lockdowns.

Affecting incomprehension, Starmer asked exactly the same question again, to which Johnson gave exactly the same answer. It did rather seem as if the Labour leader was splitting hairs on what the prime minister clearly meant to find a contradiction that did not really exist. At any rate, it did not take the debate on.

Starmer then quoted the claim of Dido Harding, the chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, that the rate of the increase in demand for testing could not have been foreseen. Starmer implied that it should have been. Lady Harding – who is a Tory peer – is a controversial choice in the Opposition’s eyes. But in singling her out, Starmer gave the prime minister his lucky break to deflect the attack away from the government.

Boris Johnson is not naturally associated with the reflex of indignant gallantry

Boris Johnson is not naturally associated with the reflex of indignant gallantry, but at the mention of her name, he thundering back, “I must say that the continual attacks by the Opposition on Dido Harding in particular are unseemly, unseemly, and unjustified and I think that her teams have done an outstanding job in recruiting people from a standing start”.

This is an exchange that is delivering diminishing returns. But what else can we expect if nobody on the Opposition benches is prepared to challenge the broad strategy, rather than just the granular detail of what could be done faster and better?

The all-party consensus that locking down – locally or nationally – the population is beyond serious challenge is short-changing an articulate section of the electorate that is sceptical about whether the government’s strategy – not just the detail of tests conducted per day – is the right one or whether it may prove to be among the most calamitous, if well-intentioned, misjudgments in the country’s peacetime history.

This view remains a minority apprehension, but the now clear failure of the first lockdown to prevent a second wave and the admission that draconian limitations on the freedom of association will continue beyond Christmas and, perhaps, indefinitely, is hardening the suspicions of sceptics who think Sweden may have got it right all along. They want a clearer articulation that the prime minister or anyone in his government has been able to provide as to why the Swedes – who are not experiencing a meaningful second wave – are wrong.

Those leaning to this view are avidly sharing articles and pronouncements by the likes of Jonathan Sumption, Toby Young and Alistair Haimes or irate businessmen like Simon Dolan and Luke Johnson. What was initially a contrarian view held by a few independent minds is now being taken-up in mainstream publications, like the Telegraph.

But to hear the leader of the Labour party or, indeed of any of the Opposition parties, it is as if an alternative to the government’s approach does not exist. Little wonder therefore, that these days PMQs seems to be avoiding the bigger picture.

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