'We're on track to have one of Europe's worst death rates': Keir Starmer focuses on coronavirus fatalities at PMQs

Sir Keir Starmer has claimed the UK is "on track to have one of the worst death rates in Europe" as he grilled Dominic Raab over Britain's soaring coronavirus fatalities.

According to his own calculations, the Labour leader said the UK's total death toll was likely to be more than 27,000 - a figure he described as "truly dreadful".

But Mr Raab hit back, saying it was "far too early to make international comparisons", pointing to big differences in the way deaths are recorded in different countries.

Sir Keir noted how there were thousands more deaths which have occurred outside of hospitals, in settings such as care homes.

It comes ahead of the release of the UK's 'true death toll', when all coronavirus deaths, including care home fatalities, will be taken into account in the latest figures.

Sir Keir Starmer asked why deaths in care homes were still rising, after ONS figures suggested more than 6,500 deaths involving coronavirus have occurred in England and Wales outside of hospital.

First Secretary Dominic Raab - deputising for Boris Johnson, whose fiancée has just given birth - admitted the spread of Covid-19 in care homes is a “challenge that we must grip”.

He said "single biggest challenge" in slowing the spread of the virus at care homes was the "ebb and flow of people" entering them.

He said the spread of the virus in hospitals had been stemmed due to a policy brought in early on, which restricted access to hospitals fighting coronavirus.

But he said the situation at care homes was more difficult to control, with families visiting, medicines entering, and new residents moving in.

Sir Keir, however, suggested the problem in care homes was also in part down to a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

He said the supply of PPE to care homes was "too slow", despite it being "so crucial" for social care workers to also be protected.

"It is 10 weeks since the health secretary declared there was a serious and imminent threat to life [in social care]," he said.

"You’d hope by now that things would be getting better not worse."

Mr Raab said Sir Keir is “right” that there are “challenges on the front line” but claimed the government had overhauled the way PPE was being delivered.

“I feel animated, inspired to do even better, but he needs to recognise on PPE that there is a global supply shortage and we’re doing absolutely everything we can to make sure that those on the front line get the equipment that they need.”

Ahead of the government's own end-of-April deadline to carry out 100,000 coronavirus tests per day, Mr Raab said test capacity was at 73,400.

But the actual number of tests carried out yesterday was just 43,563 - well short of the target.

Asked about the prime minister's target of eventually being able to carry out 250,000 tests per day, Mr Raab said it was still “an aspiration”.

He said: “Of course he’s right to say that the 250,000 target is still an aspiration, I’m not going to put a date on it.

“The key point is the 100,000 milestone – very important to me – we’re making good progress, is only the first stepping stone towards testing which is essential to the wider testing, tracking and tracing regime we’ll need as we transition to the second phase.”

The foreign secretary was also pressed to be "transparent" with the government's "exit strategy", something the Labour leading has been calling for since taking over from Jeremy Corbyn.

He said a delay in releasing the strategy “risks not only falling behind other countries, but also the successful four-nation approach so far.”

He asked why the government in Westminster had not published its plan, whereas Scotland, Wales and several other European countries already have.

Sir Keir said he was not calling for the end of lockdown, but wanted the government to be open about what would happen when it starts to relax restrictions.

But the foreign secretary said the UK was at a "very delicate and dangerous moment in this pandemic" and said it was too early to release exit strategy details.

"It would be irresponsible right now to start setting out in detail what proposals we might come up with," he added.

The foreign secretary was, for the second time, facing new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer across the despatch box in the House of Commons.

The prime minister returned to work on Monday after recovering from coronavirus, which saw him spend time in intensive care.

Upon his return to Downing Street, he thanked Mr Raab, who "stepped up" in his absence, but after giving a speech outside Number 10, his spokesman said Mr Johnson was now working "full time".

He missed Prime Minister's Questions, having spent most of the morning by the side of Ms Symonds as she gave birth, ITV News understands.

His father Stanley remarked that the birth is "wonderful news," adding: "Don’t suppose he’ll be doing PMQs but he’s got a pretty sound reason."

Labour leader Sir Keir was quick to congratulate the prime minister on the birth of his son.

In his opening remarks at PMQs, he said he hoped the birth brings the prime minister and his fiance Carrie Symonds "incredible relief and joy".

Mr Raab also congratulated the PM and said "mother and baby are doing well".

Proceedings in the Commons took place in "hybrid" form, with up to 50 MPs in the Chamber and up to 120 dialling in via Zoom.