Wednesday 22 April 2020

Keir Starmer at Prime Minister's Questions

It's an unspoken tradition round these parts to cover the first PMQs of a new opposition leader, and I see no reason to stop. Not that I'm a fan of parliamentary cretinism, but more so because the weekly Q&A matters. Yes, it's frequently farcical. Yes, the Prime Minister of the day rarely answers (as true under Labour as the Tories), but of all the interminable debates in the Commons it's this session that gets snipped and repeated on the evening news. The punters get to see it. PMQs is also important for activist and members' morale, and piques the attention of the more politically engaged.

How then did Keir Starmer manage at his first session? Given the physical distancing practised in the Commons, only 50 MPs were allowed to turn up while others dialled in to ask questions. This afforded the occasion a sombre atmos which suited the super serious, softly-softly "responsible" oppositional course he's trying to steer. And up against Dominic Raab, standing in for a Prime Minister who, for once, has a proper excuse for not attending, Keir put in an assured, confident performance.

He opened by asking Raab about the capacity for testing, who responded by saying we advanced to the point of being able to administer 40,000/day. Immediately he jumped in with "then why was only 18,000 taken yesterday?" Ouch. Raab fumbled and mumbled some answer about demand, which he said was not there. An opening for Keir to talk about the issues concerning roll out for medical and care workers, and having often to travel long distances to avail themselves of them. He then asked about the death rates of NHS and care home staff. Raab supplied a figure much lower than those bandied around the press for NHS staff, and had no numbers for care workers. Keir replied he was putting him on notice about asking the same question next week (Matt Hancock supplied the answer in his subsequent statement - 15). Lastly, Keir asked about PPE supply and all Raab could do was wibble about a billion pieces of kit. Superficially impressive, but opportunities were missed for acquiring more when the seriousness of the pandemic was obvious.

As you might imagine, centrist Twitter are wetting themselves with excitement. Keir's performance was competent and if matching numbers to promises is 'forensic', it was that too. Though, given Keir's commitment to not rocking the boat too much, the jugular wasn't so missed as not gone for. Nothing about previous failures and complacency. That said, I think Keir and his support will be pleased with that, as the present conjuncture in the Commons allows for measured but detailed critique. The question however is will Keir be able to ramp up to the semi-theatrical when politics approaches normality again?


Dipper said...

I guess everyone will have their own view, but as someone who spent a lot of time in science, one question that that this crisis has settled is as to whether non-scientists are actually all idiots, and the answer is resoundingly yes they are.

Science is really hard, and the logic of scientific discovery is unremittingly grim and difficult. To be a scientist is to be permanently thinking you've cracked it only for nature to throw it back at you.

People who think that Country A locked down before country B and Country A has a better outcome at this point so this proves conclusively that country B was at fault not to lock down earlier are just morons. They show no sense of the complexity of the problem, of how scientific logic applies to understanding phenomena, or appreciation of the many aspects that we currently do not understand that may contribute to results at this stage.

'Human Rights Lawyer' Sir Keir Starmer grandstanding his superior hindsight is convincing no-one. A lot of people won't forget his claim to understand this pandemic better than the UK's leading scientific authorities.

Anonymous said...


It didn't require hindsight to see that:

1) The government's inactivity until late March was going to result in many thousands of deaths (we could see what was happening in China and Italy).

2) That something like Covid19 was at least possible (remember SARS? Or Ebola?) and that it would be hugely irresponsible to cut the funding for stockpiles to deal with an epidemic.

3) That the long-term mismanagement of the National Health Service by a government that is ideologically opposed to its existence has consequences, especially in the event of a pandemic. ('Exercise Cygnus'?)

Anonymous said...

As for listening to "leading scientific authorities," we all know the government didn't do that. They ignored what the WHO was telling them and ignored the example of South Korea. Rather than test and introduce serious measures of social distancing the government did basically nothing until late March. They were allowing concerts, football matches, Cheltenham, etc to continue. Even now, there are large workplaces still open that are indisputably "non-essential" and in which effective social distancing isn't really possible. What "lockdown"?

At the beginning of March, Boris Johnson was, by his own account, walking around a hospital shaking hands with patients and staff. That's how little the Prime Minister of this country understood the situation.

The "herd immunity strategy" never made any sense. How do you achieve herd immunity without a vaccine? That's just doing nothing and allowing the virus to spread freely. Again, it didn't require hindsight to know how that was going to turn out: tens of thousands of people died, as was entirely predicatable. So which "scientific authorities" thought it was a good idea?

The government response to Covid19 has been, and continues to be, a catastrophic failure. In Britain, we've got 20-40 thousand people dead, and hundreds still dying every day.

SpiritSkill said...

At the point that lockdown occured confirmed cases were increasing at the rate of 20% per day. Unless you have a plan - and there appears nothing to suggest that the government has - then lockdown has to be done early to buy breathing space for a plan to be worked on.

Dipper said...

those two comments completely illustrate my point.

No evidence for the statements made, just supposition.

A complete misunderstanding of the Herd Immunity strategy.

Jim Denham said...

A pity Starmer didn't mention the scandal over the Government's disgraceful failure to join the EU's PPE and ventilator purchasing schemes - and the obvious lying that No10 and Hancock have engaged in over it.

I suspect Starmer's failure to go there is a sort of "Nixon goes to China" in reverse - he's now terrified of being labelled pro-EU.

Dipper said...

@ Jim Denham A pity Starmer didn't mention the scandal over the Government's disgraceful failure to join the EU's PPE and ventilator purchasing schemes"

That'll be the scheme that has delivered absolutely no PPE and the ventilators Doctors now decide they don't need. I'm scandalised

Anonymous said...


Feel free to explain the government's "stategy" of achieving herd immunity WITHOUT A VACCINE. Spell it out, since you understand it so well.

The only way the "strategy" makes sense is if we assume that the public health and minimising the number of deaths as far as possible was NOT the priority. Then it becomes perfectly explicable, though perhaps difficult to publicly admit to, particularly when many of their voters are precisely the people most at risk from Covid19.

Dipper said...

@ Anonymous

That is not the government strategy. But I'll explain it to you anyway. if each person infects three others, then herd immunity works by having 2 of them already having got it and immune. So for Coronavirus, that is about 66%. Once you have achieved that, the epidemic will die back and it becomes safe to go out and not get it. If the 66% who have not are the ones not affected, then it becomes possible for those who are most at risk to emerge with a higher degree of safety. It is a strategy designed to shield the most vulnerable and save lives.

and the VACCINE. That's minimum two years away unless you want to take significant risk. Your plan is to shut all schools, businesses, for a minimum two years is it?

Jim Denham said...

The Tory loon Dipper replies: "That'll be the scheme that has delivered absolutely no PPE and the ventilators Doctors now decide they don't need". The reason the various EU schemes haven't delivered anything to the UK is because we didn't join them. And just because it now turns out that the need for ventilators isn't as great as was earlier thought, that doesn't excuse the Tory refusal to sign up to a scheme that would have maximised the UK's chances of gettying them, rather than asking their Brexiteer chum Dyson to design and build them from scratch (a task he signally failed at).

Precarious Dave said...

For a "scientist" @Dipper displays some neat rhetorical tricks. Such as accusing others of failing to provide scientific evidence for their opinions whilst not providing any themselves. I put scientist in brackets because I strongly doubt @Dipper is one - in my experience actual scientists are cautious about claiming expertise outside their own field.

The one piece of "evidence" they provide proves they aren't a virologist, an epidemiologist, a statistician or even a nice person. Let's look at their version of Herd Immunity:

1) Virology - unlike measles, smallpox, etc corona viruses mutate. This means immunity might be short lived. We don't yet know how frequently, or if, new mutations will arise.

2) Epidemiology - herd immunity relies on enough of the population being immune to stop the spread of a disease when it occurs. The scenario @Dipper describes is typical of an endemic disease such as chicken pox.

3) Statistics - with only a GCE in maths I can see the flaws in the model. 66% of the UK population is 44 million. Current mortality rates are estimated at 3% so that's 1.3 million dead. Meanwhile the virus will continue at a reduced rate through the remaining 22 million. Oh and just as a by the way, these figures translate to over 100 million dead worldwide.

4) Humanity - only an absolute monster could contemplate those figures and think the best way to deal with the pandemic is to let it rip through a population because the fittest will survive.

Finally, this government led by the science is having to dump the ventilators they bought from China because they're totally unsuitable:

Dipper said...

@ Precious Dave

sigh ... a free lesson coming up. "scientist ... I strongly doubt @Dipper is one" . I'm not getting into a pissing contest ...

1, Most virologists from what I read think this mutates slowly. Most viruses mutate to get weaker but the possibility has ben raised that by putting the worst cases in hospitals and keeping weaker cases locked down this encourages the virus to get worse. Some evidence from Spanish flu has been mentioned. See Dr John Lee in the Spectator.

point 3 your stats. The fatality of Covid is hard to measure as we do not know who has had it. Most estimates are under 1%. Background fatality is 1% a year, but it is increasingly clear that there are many cases of people dying from Covid who would not ordinarily be in the 1%.

As I explained above but apparently have to explain again, the Herd Immunity concept looks to spread the disease through the part of the population that is less affected by the disease and keep more vulnerable people away so eventually the epidemic dies down and it is safe for those people to reenter society. Herd Immunity is used when it is the least worst option. If we had a vaccine obviously we would use that. If there was an effective way of tracking, tracing, and quarantining then we could try that. At the moment neither of those are on the table. So your solution is?

Re ventilators. At the time they were ordered it was consider this new disease was best treated with ventilators. Now it increasingly isn't. We learn as we go along. Candidates will receive no marks for hindsight arguments.

@Jim Denham. It hasn't delivered PPE for EU countries.

To repeat. It's a crisis. There are no off-the-shelf solutions. We are fumbling in the unknown. Smart-arse should-a-done-this comments are just annoying and reflect badly on the people making them.