Wes Streeting has enjoyed something of a dream start since his promotion to shadow health secretary a month ago. Confident at the despatch box and assured on a media round, his performance in the ‘Plan B’ debate had centrist dads of a certain vintage humming ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ once more. But while Labour’s poll lead has shot up in recent weeks, the spectre of Covid has emerged once more to remind Sir Keir’s Starm troopers of the unpredictable perils of pandemic politics.
The emergence of Omicron just before Christmas posed a challenge to politicians of all stripes: should we reintroduce restrictions to stop the health service being overwhelmed? Boris Johnson, for his part, opted not to, despite the devolved administrations in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast all opting to bring them back from Boxing Day. At the time Labour’s position was ambivalent, with Streeting releasing a milquetoast statement on 21 December which – aside from the standard Tory-bashing – merely demanded families and businesses been given ‘certainty’; something the coronavirus has shown little sign of granting.
Six days on and it seems that nothing had changed. While Johnson and his advisors judged the data to be good enough to defer a decision on more Covid curbs for another week, the usual suspects of Independent SAGE were already demanding such measures be brought back – under the guise of ‘protections’ rather than ‘restrictions.’
Labour’s response? To fence-sit once again, with the party refusing to say whether they support new restrictions being imposed in England for New Year’s Eve. Streeting released another bland statement, demanding ‘reassurance’ while noting that ‘people will be relieved to see no new restrictions.’
After a difficult 2021, people will be relieved to see no new restrictions ahead of the new year, but we need reassurance that this is the right decision being taken for the right reasons and that schools and the NHS will be able to cope. @UKLabour’s response in full: pic.twitter.com/wvnmxGICft
— Wes Streeting MP (@wesstreeting) December 27, 2021
Again, this ducks the key question of what the party would do differently were it in government. By declining the chance to differentiate itself from Johnson’s position, does Labour agree that he was right to ignore the calls for more curbs in recent weeks? Calls, incidentally, which included, er, Wes Streeting on 19 December when he urged on Sky News more government action – i.e restrictions – ‘sooner rather than later.’ If so, what does this say about the decisions of the Labour administration in Wales, where Drakeford re-introduced such curbs on Sunday?
Perhaps the party is keen to avoid a repeat of July, when Keir Starmer declared that ‘Boris Johnson’s recklessness means we’re going to have an NHS summer crisis.’ But Starmer’s so-called ‘Johnson variant’ never posed the same threat to the health service as previous Covid strains. The PM’s decision to opt for an exit wave in the summer, rather than winter, has apparently now been vindicated in light of events elsewhere across Europe.
If Labour is hoping to form a government sometime soon, let’s hope they sort out their Covid contortions sharpish.
Boris Johnson’s recklessness means we’re going to have an NHS summer crisis.
The Johnson Variant is already out of control – and we’re heading to 100,000 cases a day.pic.twitter.com/8mZmP6fv6p
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) July 19, 2021
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