Newly-elected Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said the government will face tough questions over its response to the pandemic, but told Sky News “now is not the time”.
Sir Keir made his comments as the number of coronavirus patient deaths in the UK passed the 10,000 mark, with almost 1,000 fatalities reported on Friday alone.
Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday show, Sir Keir vowed to ask “difficult questions” about the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
But he stressed, for now, his party would seek a “unity of purpose” with ministers and offer “constructive” opposition.
“What we all want – the whole country wants, the Labour Party wants, the government wants – is to see that figure flatten and hopefully, start going down,” Sir Keir said.
He added: “The figure for hospital admissions, the tragic death figures, we want to see them going down and whatever measures are necessary now, for the government to take, whether that is increasing capacity in the NHS or whether that’s lockdown, to get those figures down, we will support it.
“Of course, there will be questions in due course about what happened when but the most important thing is that we do have that unity of purpose which is to try to get those figures down and we will support the government in that.
“We will ask questions, difficult questions about where we go next, about what’s happened in the past, but I think the whole nation desperately wants those figures to go down.
“Every day we see the figures, we shudder at the thought of the families that are affected by it.”
:: Listen to the Sophy Ridge on Sunday podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker
Asked whether the government initial response to the coronavirus outbreak – with 70,000 people attending Cheltenham Festival on the same day, 13 March, when Italy recorded 200 coronavirus deaths – Sir Keir added: “There are going to be difficult questions about whether the government was too slow but now is not the time for those.”
But Sir Keir did call for answers from ministers on how the UK might come out of the current lockdown measures.
He said: “We all know that a vaccine, which is the sort of end exit strategy, is probably 12 months away so the question is, what happens in that intervening 12 months?
“Now, I’m pushing the government on this because we need to plan for it, we can’t just arrive at it without a plan.”
Sir Keir welcomed the news that parliament will return on 21 April, when MPs’ Easter break ends, with the office of Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg confirming on Sunday that “technological solutions” will be considered to enable MPs to sit remotely.
During his first week at the top of the Labour Party, Sir Keir has reshaped the party’s top team with sweeping changes to the shadow cabinet – including the ousting of many of those loyal to ex-leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Asked if he was delivering the end of “Corbynism”, Sir Keir said he had advised his shadow ministers against looking “to the past for people to cling to” and encouraged them to develop their own ideas.
“I’ve never accepted these labels based on an individual,” Sir Keir said.
He added: “The duty and responsibility is on us now to do what’s necessary over the next four years, not to look backwards at other individuals, whoever they may be.”