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23 September 2020

Seven things we learned from this week’s PMQs

Boris Johnson has promised “new measures” as calls to extend the furlough scheme reach fever pitch, and six other things we learned at this week's Prime Minister's Questions

By Ailbhe Rea

1. Boris Johnson thinks test and trace doesn’t have anything to do with containing the spread of the virus…

Keir Starmer opened Prime Minister’s Questions by highlighting the contrast between Boris Johnson’s extraordinary claim yesterday that “testing and tracing has very little to do with the transmission or spread of the disease” with previous comments both from him and his Health Secretary that test and trace was “the single most important thing” to prevent the spread of the virus. The Prime Minister stood by yesterday’s claim, arguing it is an “epidemiological fact that alas this disease is transmitted by human contact or aerosol contact”. He emphasised the system’s role in knowing where the virus is, but not explicitly in suppressing the spread. 

2. … and Keir Starmer missed an open goal

The Labour leader showed an unusual lack of agility in responding to the PM’s warped argument that test and trace has little to do with the spread of coronavirus because the system does not, itself, literally transmit the disease. He had clearly not expected the PM to double down on his comments. It meant that Starmer missed the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister if he understands the link between testing failures and the need for further restrictions, as well as the role that a functioning test and trace system could and should be playing in preventing asymptomatic transmission; the very cause, as the Prime Minister has acknowledged, of the virus being seeded into care homes during the first outbreak.

3. The calls to extend the furlough scheme are reaching fever pitch…

Question after question to the Prime Minister was about the furlough scheme, which is due to conclude on 31 October. Keir Starmer and the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, as well as numerous backbenchers, called on the government to extend the scheme, as health restrictions are dialled up but economic support winds down.

4. … as Boris Johnson promises “creative and imaginative measures” to keep people in work

The Prime Minister, after successive questions, promised that a “massive package” of support is going to be introduced by the Chancellor to keep people in work. “Of course the government is going to introduce further measures,” he reassured one MP. “Creative and imaginative measures” are on their way, he said, but there is to be no extension of the furlough scheme.

5. Family is starting to infuse Keir Starmer’s messaging

Following the virtual Labour conference, where the Labour Party put a renewed emphasis on family and patriotism, such values are increasingly infusing Keir Starmer’s messaging at PMQs. He referenced his wife, who currently works in the NHS, and his mother, who used to do so, as a rebuttal to Johnson’s line that the Labour leader is failing to support NHS test and trace. He also framed the problem with testing as a particular problem for families. As Labour tries to outflank the Conservatives as the party of family values, we can expect this to be a recurring theme.

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6. Conservative backbenchers want new legislation against migrant entry into the UK… 

Tory backbencher Gareth Bacon urged the Prime Minister to introduce “a comprehensive bill to deal with” people crossing the English Channel illegally “at the very latest, before the next Queen’s Speech”. Johnson agreed that the law on this needs to be clarified and, although declining to commit to new legislation soon, told the MP that once Britain has left the EU and is able to “make our own return arrangements…we will be able to find a way forward”.

7. … and they are already worried about the government’s planning reforms

Saqib Bhatti, another Tory backbencher, raised concerns about the impact that the government’s looming planning reforms will have on his constituency of Meriden, in the West Midlands. The Prime Minister gave assurances that “we will not change existing policy to protect the green belt” and will focus on brownfield building, but, with the consultation on the issue not due to conclude for another month, it is an early sign of the strong potential for a backbench rebellion on this issue

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