Labour leader Keir Starmer has urged the prime minister to extend support for businesses which are “paying the price” of the spread of the Delta variant.
Starmer called for a scrapping of the traffic light system for international travel in the House of Commons today, urging government to scrap the amber list.
The Labour Party called for a blanket hotel quarantine policy last month when he urged government to ditch the “confused and contradictory” traffic light system.
Starmer reiterated that stance today and said the government should protect UK borders and financially support businesses which could not trade as a result. A Labour proposal to move all countries on the amber list to the red list was rejected by MPs on Tuesday by 363 votes to 256.
At Prime Minister’s Questions today, Starmer asked: “Does the prime minister recognise that his decision to keep our borders open contributed to the spread of the Delta variant in this country?”
Johnson replied: “No. I think that Captain Hindsight needs to adjust his retrospectoscope because he’s completely wrong.
“We put India on the red list on April 23 and the Delta variant was not so identified until April 28 and was only identified as a variant of concern on May 7.”
Starmer said he had raised the issue multiple times in Parliament, telling Johnson: “Your defence is as bad as your border policy.”
He noted that 20,000 people travelled to the UK from India in the weeks leading up to April 23, as infections and deaths spikes in the country.
“What on earth did the prime minister expect would be the consequences of that? The British people did their bit by following the rules and getting vaccinated but the prime minister squandered it by letting a new variant into the country.
“That was not inevitable. It was the consequence of his indecision.”
Johnson said the UK does 47% of genomic sequencing in the world, and doing so helped identify Delta as a variant of concern.
Starmer pointed out the Delta variant is responsible for 90% of UK infections, and said: “If the prime minister put as much effort into protecting our borders as he does into these ridiculous excuses, the country would be reopening next week.
“He’s persisting with a traffic light system that doesn’t work, that won’t stop other variants coming in. After so many mistakes and with the stakes so high, why doesn’t the prime minister do what Labour is calling for: drop the traffic light system, get rid of the amber list, secure the borders and do everything possible to save the British summer.”
Johnson said the UK has the “toughest border measures anywhere in the world” and 50 countries on the red list.
“If he’s now saying that he wants to stop all travel to and from this country then it’s yet another flip-flop. If he wants to close this country down to travel then it’s also totally pointless because we have 75% of our medicine and 60% of our food that comes from abroad.”
Starmer said it was “ridiculous” to suggest the 20,000 travellers from India were all bringing in food and medicines, and said Labour had called for India to be added to the red list sooner.
“If that had have happened we wouldn’t have the Delta variant here,” he said.
Starmer said that those in ‘tourism and travel’, among other sectors, were “paying the price” for the decision.
“All they ask is that if they have to keep their businesses closed they get the support that they need,” he added. “But where is it?”
He flagged that business rates relief and furlough are being withdrawn and phased out respectively, said Labour was extending support in Wales, and urged the Conservative government to do th same for England.
Johnson said “we are seeing businesses slowly recovering” and pointed to growth over the recent bank holiday. He didn’t refer to specific sectors.
“It’s not what the government has done, it’s what’s needed this week,” said Starmer.
“We all want these restrictions to be over, for our economy to be open, for businesses to thrive – but the prime minister’s indecision at the borders has blown it.”