During PMQs today, Keir Starmer asked the prime minister a pretty straightforward question, to which he – as has become typical – received a very un-straightforward answer.
Starmer was asking for some clarity on testing, and when it will be widely implemented as a routine strategy in trying to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The Labour leader pointed out that the chief executive of Care England ("who knows what he's talking about") gave evidence yesterday that this is not currently the case.
After being heckled so heavily that Matt Hancock was threatened with being removed by the Speaker, Starmer continued.
'Testing' as referred to by the prime minister – that on its own is obviously not enough. What's needed is testing, tracing and isolation.
At yesterday's press conference, the deputy chief scientific adviser said that we could draw particular lessons from Germany and South Korea, which have both had intensive testing and tracing. The number of Covid-19 deaths in Germany stands at around 8,000. In South Korea, it's under 300. In contrast, in the United Kingdom, despite 2 million tests being carried out, there's been no effective tracing carried out in place since March the 12th since tracing was abandoned.
That's nearly 10 weeks, in a critical period, without effecting tracing. That's a huge hole in our defences, isn't it prime minister?
We can all agree that this is a very valid point. Compared to South Korea or even Germany, the more than 35,000 UK death toll is huge.
Boris Johnson, however, didn't really address this issue. Instead, he waffled on for about two and a half minutes about how he'd given Keir Starmer lots of briefings, it's been "explained many times", and that Starmer is "perfectly aware of the situation", which is kind of the point and the reason he asked the question...
Johnson continues to say that he's "confident" that there will be a test-and-trace programme which "if all the other conditions are satisfied will enable us to make progress".
He said that by 1 June we will be able to trace 10,000 new cases per day (which feels very reminiscent of that 100,000-tests-per-day target which was only briefly met and under somewhat dubious circumstances).
Johnson ends his rant by saying that as a result of this plan:
I hope therefore that he will abandon his slightly negative tone and support it.
Starmer responded with what we were all thinking:
Thirty-four thousand deaths is negative. Of course I'm going to ask about that.
The Tories seem to be a bit obsessed with policing Labour MPs' "tones", rather than answering the questions at hand.
There was a similarly strange moment three weeks ago when Matt Hancock told Tooting MP (and NHS doctor) Rosena Allin-Khan to "take a leaf out of the shadow secretary’s book in terms of tone" after she also asked about testing.
Given that Keir Starmer' at PMQs has been outperforming every minister they've wheeled out so far, Johnson might want to consider starting to answer the questions, rather than worrying about whether people's tones are what he'd hoped for or not.