Behind the scenes

Is Keir Starmer really ‘Captain Hindsight’ on Covid restrictions?

Conservatives accuse Labour leader of ‘playing politics’ over the pandemic response

Keir Starmer is living up to the “Captain Hindsight” nickname handed to him by Boris Johnson by pre-empting the government’s policies with public calls for tighter Covid restrictions, critics claim.

The Labour leader insisted during a television interview on Monday that schools should be shut in order to curb soaring infection rates - a demand that came “an hour after Downing Street had briefed journalists that an announcement was coming that evening”, Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham reports.

Starmer’s allies insist the interview was recorded before the policy was briefed, but sceptics argue that the schools call is just the latest example of the Labour chief “playing politics during the pandemic”, says Wickham. 

Starmer claimed shortly before Christmas that the new, more infectious strain of Covid had been “spotted in September” but that the prime minister had chosen to “ignore alarm bells”.

But NHS England said that health bosses had only became aware of the variant in mid-October, according to The Sun.

Conservative Party co-chair Amanda Milling, told the newspaper that Starmer was “peddling falsehoods”, adding: “If Captain Hindsight is so sure, let the country know where he got his facts from for this sheer attempt at political opportunism?”

The Telegraph’s Tom Harris, a former Labour MP, agrees that “it’s not the unions whose lead Starmer is following, it’s the prime minister’s”. 

“Pre-announcing whatever Number 10 says is the most risk-free strategy for a party leader who values responsibility and electoral credibility far more than voter-repellent radicalism”, Harris writes. “But the tactic is also cynical, and it’s becoming more transparent every day.”

Both Starmer and his supporters have repeatedly denied that he is simply parroting the government line. 

In October, the Labour chief told The Guardian that Johnson had “lost control” of the fight against Covid-19 and said that it was the PM who is “governing in hindsight”. Starmer laid out a five-point plan for handling the pandemic, including putting in place procedures for distributing the vaccine that would be given the green-light two months later.

More recently, Starmer added his voice to the chorus of experts who called for a national lockdown.

Speaking shortly after Johnson acknowledged on Sunday that Covid restrictions were “probably about to get tougher”, Starmer said: “We can’t allow the prime minister to use up the next two or three weeks and then bring in the national lockdown that is inevitable. Do it now. That’s the necessary first step to get the virus back under control.”

Responding to Starmer’s intervention, a No. 10 source said: “We have moved more areas into tier 4 to bear down on the new variant and escalated other areas into tier 3. This targeted approach is the right one.” 

On Monday, however, Johnson announced the third national lockdown

Starmer’s latest intervention is a call for a “round the clock” vaccination programme in order to deliver on the PM’s pledge to inoculate around 13 million people by mid-February.

Whether that will become government policy remains to be seen.

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