What we learned from this week's PMQs

The test and trace system in England is the government’s Achilles’ heel, and the other things we learned at this week’s Prime Minister's Questions.


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The weakness in the test and trace system is the government's Achilles' heel

Keir Starmer began this week's PMQs by highlighting a stark statistic about the success of England's test and trace system: two thirds of people with Covid-19 are not being reached by the contact tracing scheme. Despite the Prime Minister's emphasis on the absolute number (87,000) of people who have been told to isolate through the programme, it highlights a truth that had already been conceded by Dido Harding, who is overseeing the programme: test and trace in England won't be "fully operational" until September. In the meantime, there are multiple concerns from scientists around what they perceive to be incomplete data, the continued failure to fully integrate test and trace with local healthcare providers, and an overall concern that the system isn't reaching a sufficient proportion of the population. 

The government wants to return to its pre-election agenda

Some of the more obviously planted questions from Conservative whips revealed a common theme: the government is hoping that the new wave of lockdown easing will give it more room to pursue its pre-Covid priorities. Johnson revived a line that hasn't been used in a while in response to a backbencher's question about drugs gangs: the pre-election promise of 20,000 new police officers.

The Conservative backbenches want answers on China

Flick Drummond – back as MP for Meon Valley having been MP for Portsmouth South from 2015-17 – asked Boris Johnson what the ramifications are for British interests in the building border conflict between India and China. The Prime Minister said the government was urging both sides to engage in dialogue and to sort it out between themselves. The exchange lays bare the concern in parts of the parliamentary party that the government doesn't have a sufficiently robust or fleshed-out strategy for dealing with China moving forward.

The Prime Minister is not across his brief on benefits

The weakest moment for Johnson today was in response to a question from Labour's Jessica Morden, who asked a straightforward question about an ongoing review into benefits for the terminally ill. The review was launched last year amid longstanding concerns that the current system leaves terminally ill people unable to access benefits in the last months of their lives due to bureaucratic delays. The Prime Minister appeared visibly flustered as he referred in general terms to universal credit and said he would respond to the MP in writing. 

It has always been one of the huge unspoken challenges of PMQs that the Prime Minister must respond to questions from across the huge scope of the government's remit, but this exchange exposed this as a particular weak spot for Boris Johnson. Much like his appearance before the liaison committee a few months ago, in which he appeared not to know that those with a temporary immigration status in the UK have no recourse to public funds, the Prime Minister was again insufficiently across the detail of the government's programme on benefits.

The "respond in writing" lever is one occasionally pulled by ministers in response to specific cases raised on behalf of a constituent or on a particularly technical matter. In response to a more general policy question, it is much less common, and not a lever the Prime Minister can afford to pull too often. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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