We faced an unprecedented crisis, but tens of thousands of Second Wave Covid deaths were preventable – and unforgivable | Keir Starmer

BBehind this week’s allegations and noise lie a few simple truths. We have the worst death toll from coronaviruses in Europe. And more than two-thirds of the deaths were in the second wave. It is not hearsay. It is not an opinion. It’s a fact.

Behind all this political drama hides one more fact. Most important of all. That 128,000 families are in mourning, now wondering if their loved ones have died needlessly.

The human cost of this pandemic has been appalling. We all know someone who has been touched by it. Yet despite this, the British people displayed the most extraordinary courage and national spirit.

This national spirit deserved strong national leadership. Leadership that protected our most vulnerable when they needed it. This leadership was lacking. Almost a quarter of those who tragically died were the most vulnerable of all – those in our nursing homes.

This is the generation that rebuilt our country after the Second World War. You don’t have to believe Dominic Cummings to see what happened was a betrayal. Retirement homes and care workers have been left uncovered and without support.

We may never know if Boris Johnson said Covid “only kills 80-year-olds” when he delayed a second lockdown. What we do know is that the man charged with keeping them safe showed a ruthless contempt for our elderly because he overlooked the incompetence of his Health Secretary.

It’s not just an argument about decisions made (or not made). It is a question of leadership.

And that’s what really frustrates me. The fall and winter crisis was not inevitable. It was not a choice between two equally bad options. It was the result of avoidable mistakes.

In the first wave, we faced an unprecedented crisis. Decision making was undoubtedly difficult. Mistakes were inevitable. The British public understands this.

But in the summer, we knew a lot more about the virus. The Prime Minister has been warned to prepare for a second wave. He did not do it. And more than twice as many people died in the second wave than in the first. It was preventable and unforgivable.

Failure to fix contact tracing and self-isolation support? Avoidable. The weak border policy that re-imported the virus? Avoidable. Lockout times – not once, not twice, but three times? Avoidable.

It was a failure of leadership. A failure to make the tough decisions necessary to keep people safe. This failure belongs to the Prime Minister. It goes to the heart of his character and aptitude for the office. As the second wave developed, his refusal to take advice or acknowledge the mistakes of the past had devastating consequences.

At the start of the crisis, Labor backed the government when it introduced restrictions. It was in the national interest. In the fall and winter, we made the difficult decision to request earlier lockouts. Again, because it was in the national interest. Not because it was popular. Telling families that we needed a fall lockdown and that Christmas should be canceled was not an easy option. Advocating for stricter border measures was not the easiest solution.

Leaders should be prepared to speak unpopular truths. Boris Johnson hesitated and delayed because he didn’t want to do it. Its inability to make difficult decisions endangered the safety and security of the British people. The only tough decision Johnson made last year was to throw a protective ring around Dominic Cummings, not our retirement homes.

This matters for three reasons. First, the virus is not conquered. And mistakes keep repeating. Weak and slow decisions in border policy allowed the Indian variant to prevail. The lack of support for self-isolation and confused local councils failed to contain it. We all want to unlock on June 21, but the biggest threat to that is government incompetence.

With cases of variants doubling in a week and scientists raising concerns, Johnson and his ministers should focus relentlessly on reducing infections. Instead, they are again distracted by melodrama, civil war, and covering their backs.

Second, bereaved families deserve answers. This week’s complaints and counterclaims circus underscores the need for a public inquiry as soon as possible. There is no good reason to delay until next year. Once again, Boris Johnson avoids a tough decision.

And third, we need strong leadership coming out of the pandemic. After 10 years of Conservative government, we entered the pandemic with broken foundations. Public services are reduced to nothing. Huge vacancies in the NHS. Precarious jobs. Poverty is increasing and life expectancy is stagnating.

As we come out of the pandemic, we face a fork in the road. We cannot go back to this broken system and just hope to fix it. We need to take a bolder path. To rebuild our economy so that it is based on skills and high standards. Guarantee quality prospects and salaries within everyone’s reach. Rebuild utilities so they avoid problems, not just alleviate them. Rethink where the power resides in our country and for whom it works.

Leadership means meeting these challenges. But Johnson has shown he is not up to the task. Lack of accountability catches up with leaders. It did so during the fall and winter, with fatal costs.

Whenever I meet families who have lost loved ones, I feel the anger and sorrow they feel every day. The desire to know why.

In times of crisis, our country needs strong leadership. We didn’t have that when it mattered. We still don’t. And it is the British who are paying the price.


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