'The Prime Minister has been asleep at the wheel.' - Keir Starmer criticises the government's coronavirus response

Sir Keir Starmer spoke to Good Morning Britain today saying most British children should already be back in school and that he had a zero tolerance approach to antisemitism in the Labour Party. 

He also told Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid that the Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been “asleep at the wheel” during the coronavirus crisis.

On some children not being back at school until September, he commented: “It’s a total lack of planning by the Government. From the day the schools shut, it was obvious that work needed to start on getting them back open again… most of the problems with schools are practical problems, if you have a big space you can probably do it with bubbles. If you have a small school without the space, it’s much more difficult.”

He continued: “If two or three months ago, the Government had put a task force together, risk assess every school, build where necessary, put up prefab classrooms. There’s libraries and community centres that aren’t been used during the pandemic. If there had been a plan, that had started two or three months ago, we would probably have most children back in school now.”

Speaking about the teaching unions, he replied: “I’ve discussed with the trade unions and... the local authorities, and I wrote the to the Prime Minister and what I said, ‘What you need here is a task force… get them round the table, have a clear plan with everybody working together, everybody shoulder to the when and we can pull this off’. I actually wrote privately to the Prime Minister about it because I didn’t want it just to be party political because I care more about getting kids back to school than playing party politics on this. But the Prime Minister didn’t even reply. I honestly think if people had been put around the table and said this is the task in hand we are going to pull together and do it, we would actually have children back in school now.”

On being asked by the Prime Minister whether schools should go back, he said: “If I had said the first time ‘yes’ it would have been a damn sight easier.”

Talking about the recent controversy over Rebecca Long-Bailey and her recent tweet, he explained: “There was an article last week that linked the killing of George Floyd in America to Israel and it was a link that couldn’t possibly be made out and it was the same old, same old, which is a problem anywhere in the world, point the finger at Israel. I took the view that it was antisemitism. Rebecea had tweeted about it. I wanted her to take her tweet down straight away and that didn't happen. And in the end I asked her to stand down from the shadow cabinet.”

On whether he was accusing her of antisemitism, he said: “ No I’m not. What I’m saying is that my acceptance speech as leader of the Labour Party was very, very clear, I took the first opportunity to apologize for the way the Labour Party had failed on antisemitism in the past and I said I was determined to tear it out by the roots. I didn’t just mean words, I meant actions. That’s why I took the action I did last Thursday. I do not want the Labour Party and antisemitism in the same sentence again… this isn’t just about winning votes, this is about values and principles. I do not want antisemitism in our Labour Party.”

He went on: “Because she tweeted about an article that made that connection and I asked her to take it down. It didn’t come down and I took action. This is not a left right issue in the Labour Party, it’s an issue of principle for me. Zero tolerance on antisemitism. I would have taken the same action in relation to anyone else in the Labour Party.

“It’s pretty obvious to me, that the casual link, exactly as you say, between something goes wrong in the world and you point the finger either at the Jews or Israel. It’s the casualness of it that is very, very obvious and offensive. I actually think to be fair within the Party, as the dust has settled on this, most people in the Party recognise the decision made last Thursday was the right decision.”

Asked if she should take her tweet down, he said: “She should take it down.”

On the row between JK Rowling and trans issues and a front bencher having to apologise to the author, Sir Keir said: “He was right to swiftly apologise and he did.”

Reacting to the latest poll results, which showed more British people would like to see him as Prime Minister, he urged caution saying: “Let’s keep my feet very, very firmly on the ground. We lost that election in November really badly. I don’t want anyone in the Labour Party or Labour movement ever to forget that. I don’t want to go a night like that ever again… I have a mountain to climb, between now and the next election in 2024… the hard yards are winning back the trust of the British people and I am doing that day in and day out… I am determined to do it and I’m going to sweat blood to do it.”

Asked if he could do more than one press up, he joked: “I can! I was thinking at PMQs I was thinking perhaps maybe question one should be, first to 50."

On the issue of trust and Boris Johnson, he said: “The reason I don’t laugh is because I think of the 65,000 people who have died because of coronavirus and their families. Pride is not something you would ever associate with what’s happened over the last three months. I think the Prime Minister has been asleep at the wheel. He has been slow with the comms, communications has been terrible. It began to break down frankly when Dominic Cummings put forward a ridiculous defence of what he was up to in the north east.”

He added the way Boris Johnson had spoken about the risks of people flocking to beaches showed a lack of control. He continued: “They are losing control of the messaging. They haven’t been on your show for I don’t know how long now [62 days]. If you are in Government, and you are trying to get your message. They should be on, because the messaging is important. They should be using every opportunity to get their message across to the British people who have done amazing things in this crisis. But they should be on the programme and they should be getting their message across and they are not doing it.

“If you want to be a leader you have to take responsibility and that’s where this Prime Minister really struggles. I come on to your show knowing you are going to ask me questions, that I take decisions others will take a view on them but I have got the responsibility to come and answer. And that’s what the Prime Minister would do."

On opening the pubs, he said he supported the Government but explained: “My concern about what the Government are doing is not that they want to ease restrictions. It's that they haven’t done the groundwork on test, trace and isolate.”

He added: “Closing down an infection if it crops up quickly is what is critical in the coming weeks and months.”

On Black Lives Matter and the political organisation tweeting about Palestine and Israel at the weekend, he said: “I don’t support what the political organisation is saying. I think there is a much broader principle here, a worldwide principle recognising that black lives matter. It’s a moment and that’s what I was acknowledging… Not the narrow and wrong politics of some of it.”

Asked about Trump retweeting someone talking about white power, he said: “It’s really damaging but if we are going to start on the tweets of the President of the United States we are going to be here for a very long interview... I condemn a lot of what President Trump does.”