What we learned from this week's PMQs

Boris Johnson takes "full responsibility" for Covid deaths in care homes, but won't apologise for his comments.

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Boris Johnson takes "full responsibility" for Covid deaths in care homes...

In his first reply to Keir Starmer at this week's Prime Minister's Questions, Boris Johnson delivered what appeared to be a carefully prepared statement to qualify his comments that "too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have". The Prime Minister emphasised that he takes "full responsibility" for the huge numbers of deaths from coronavirus in care homes and said that the "last thing" he wanted to do was blame care workers for the crisis. 

...but the battle to frame the cause of disproportionate Covid deaths in care homes is well underway

The carefully conciliatory tone slipped slightly, however, as the Prime Minister refused to apologise for his comments, inviting further outrage from Starmer and the opposition benches. What followed was a rehearsal of a debate we can expect to see repeated and amplified in the months to come, as Starmer and Johnson exchanged blows on what went wrong in care homes. The Prime Minister's line is that no one knew about the potential for asymptomatic transmission and, increasingly rattled, he insisted that "understanding of the disease changed dramatically". The Labour leader has urged the government to accept that it was "too slow to act".

It is not certain that Johnson's defence will stand up to scrutiny, however. Sage minutes from as early as January indicate that "some [asymptomatic transmission] is occurring", and, as has been widely reported in the New Statesman and elsewhere, government guidance on care homes in March continued to say that cases in care homes were “very unlikely”, citing no community transmission as the reason, for eight days after there was known community transmission. 

The PM called the Labour leader "Captain Hindsight" in his criticism of the government's approach (it is true that the opposition did not pick up on the crisis in care homes until relatively late). But the defence that Johnson is constructing already looks shaky, and it will be put to the test in the months ahead and in the inevitable inquiry to come. 

There could be another U-turn ahead on free parking for NHS staff

Following reports that the government will be ending the free parking for NHS staff that began during the pandemic, the Prime Minister simply said it would be following through on its manifesto promise of free hospital parking for patients. His silence on the issue at hand, and the widespread condemnation of the policy, suggests this could well be the subject of another government U-turn. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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