What we learned from the first PMQs of the year

Keir Starmer has called for a tougher lockdown, and five other things we learned at this week's Prime Minister's Questions

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1. Keir Starmer has called for a tougher lockdown 

Much ridiculed by the Prime Minister for being "Captain Hindsight", and even considered by some in his party to be overly cautious, the Labour leader used the first Prime Minister's Questions of the year to make plain his approach to the pandemic. Clearly hoping to be one step ahead of the government in toughening in the English lockdown restrictions, Keir Starmer declared that "the current restrictions are not strong enough to contain the virus", asking: “When cases are higher than last March, when hospital admissions are higher than last March, when deaths are higher than last March, why on earth are restrictions weaker than last March?” 

2. The vaccine rollout will move to a 24-hour approach "as soon as we can"

The Prime Minister couldn't give a specific timeframe, but the government has now committed to 24-hour vaccination centres.

3. Boris Johnson was genuinely angry at being confronted with his own government's free school meals guidance

Following an outcry over images of the paltry food parcels being provided to children eligible for free school meals while schools are closed, the Prime Minister, who spoke to footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford about this issue earlier today, was clear that the pictures were "disgraceful". But the Labour leader confronted him with the Department for Education's own guidance for food parcel provision. Johnson was visibly rattled by the question, and accused Starmer of "hypocrisy" before the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, asked the Prime Minister to withdraw his comments. In a slick move by Labour's communications team, the party is now circulating a comparison between the food parcel images that created a social media storm and the government's own guidance: 

4.  There is increasing agitation on the Conservative benches for more support for hospitality...

Simon Jupp, the Conservative MP for East Devon, asked for an extension to the VAT cut for hospitality.

5. ... and for a stated vaccination goal for lifting lockdown

Julian Sturdy, the Conservative MP for York Outer, used his question to amplify existing calls on the Conservative back benches to set a clear "line in the sand" for when restrictions can be lifted, after a certain proportion of the priority groups have been vaccinated. It is the new priority of the Coronavirus Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, who are keen for the lockdown measures to be lifted as soon as possible. 

6. Boris Johnson would have "no hesitation" in invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol if necessary

The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson asked the Prime Minister what his government is going to do about the disruption to trade from Great Britain into Northern Ireland as a result of his Brexit deal, which has caused empty shelves in Northern Irish supermarkets in recent days. Donaldson asked the Prime Minister if he will consider triggering Article 16, which would allow the British government to override the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreement. Johnson insisted that "goods are flowing effectively" but admitted there are "teething problems". He confirmed he would have "no hesitation" in invoking Article 16 if problems became "disproportionate". 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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