Leicester’s coronavirus surge and lockdown was caused by “problems getting people to understand” what to do, Boris Johnson claimed today.
The Prime Minister said the city had “particular” issues that meant a fresh outbreak of the virus was not contained quickly enough – forcing shops to shut their doors.
Meanwhile, just days after he called for beaches to “show some guts” and “roll out the welcome mat”, the PM blamed individual beach-goers for crowds in Bournemouth.
The PM complained: “It is vital that people have to behave responsibly – and that is why the scenes in Bournemouth were completely unacceptable.”
Non-essential shops and schools were forced to close in Leicester this week after coronavirus soared to a tenth of all new cases in the country.
It was not immediately clear what the Prime Minister was referring to in his comments about Leicester.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the government of dragging its feet after first admitting a Leicester outbreak on June 18.
He said: “That’s a delay of 11 days during which the virus was spreading in Leicester.
“Why was the government so slow to act?”
Mr Johnson insisted the government acted “decisively”.
He said officials first identified the issue on June 8 and sent mobile testing units to the city.
But “unfortunately in Leicester it did not prove possible to get the results we’ve seen elsewhere”, he said.
He added: “For reasons that I think the House will probably understand, there were particular problems in Leicester in implementing the advice and getting people to understand what was necessary to do.
“But let’s face it, we’ve had to act, the government has acted.
“And he wants to know whether we’ll act in future to ensure we protect the health of the entire country – and I can tell him that we will, absolutely.”
It was initially unclear what the PM was referring to.
Leicester Labour MP Jon Ashworth has previously highlighted the city is “proudly diverse” and has high poverty rates – two things that put its citizens more at risk from Covid-19.
Boris Johnson’s spokesman later confirmed he was referring to people for whom English is a second language.
Asked who the PM meant, he said: “The Health Secretary set out in the chamber on Monday night the specific steps we thought would be helpful in Leicester, such as opening the walk-in testing centre.
“And [he] then also pointed to the issue of making sure all the languages which might be spoken locally – the materials are being translated into all of those, and communications on the ground locally are properly targeted.”
One government source attempted to defend Mr Johnson’s comments by suggesting he may have been referring to Leicester’s council and mayor – who initially opposed the government’s lockdown plans.
The source claimed the council had been “useless” and failed to translate communications into languages other than English, as is usual for important government literature.
Boris Johnson also tried to shift the blame for chaotic scenes on Bournemouth beach onto individual beach-goers.
The PM had taken a gung-ho attitude last week, urging coastal resorts to “show some guts” and welcome visitors.
But today he said if people are going take advantage of easing of lockdown, “they must observe social distancing.
“And it’s everybody’s responsibility to ensure that is the case”.
Keir Starmer accused the PM of being “flippant”.
Boris Johnson waved his hand dismissively as Labour’s leader said: “I support easing of restrictions – but unlike the Prime Minister, I’m not blind to the risks.”
Keir Starmer used PMQs to demand a “laser-like focus on protecting jobs” after the PM’s “build, build, build” speech yesterday focused mainly on big infrastructure projects.
But the PM admitted: “I’m not going to give a figure for the number of job losses that may or may not take place.
“Of course the risk is very serious.”
Meanwhile he was embroiled in the third spat over disputed claims in three weeks after the PM claimed councils were given crucial testing data.
Leicester’s mayor has said he did not have complete local testing data until last Thursday – two and a half weeks after an outbreak was identified.
Sir Keir Starmer said ‘Pillar 1’ testing data from hospitals was available, but ‘Pillar 2’ – drive-through or home testing kits – was not.
He added: “That may sound technical.
“But what that meant was the local authority thought there were 80 positive tests in the last fortnight – when the real figure was 944.”
Sir Keir warned “there was a lost week whilst the virus was spreading” – which has prompted “real fears of further local lockdowns across the country”.
He added: “Can the Prime Minister give a cast iron guarantee today that no other local authority will ever be put in that position again?”
Yet the Prime Minister claimed Pillar 2 data had in fact been available, despite local leaders insisting the truth was the exact opposite.
He said: “Well actually I’m afraid the Right Honourable Gentleman is mistaken, because both Pillar 1 and 2 data have been shared not just with Leicester but with all authorities across the country.
“We did in Leicester exactly what we did in Kirklees, Bradford or Weston-Super-Mare or other places where very effective whack-a-mole strategies have been put in place.”
Sir Keir hit back that he spoke to Leicester’s mayor yesterday and “he’s absolutely clear that he didn’t get that data until last Thursday.”
Labour’s leader added: “The PM can’t just bat away challenge. these are matters of life and death and people’s livelihoods.”
Sir Keir repeated concerns about the NHS’s Test and Trace system, saying a quarter of positive cases still aren’t being reached – plus many more people aren’t contacted because they don’t get a test.
He said of the 22,000 new cases in mid June, just 5,000 were reached and asked to provide details of their recent contacts.
Boris Johnson tried to focus on the 113,000 who had been reached.
But Sir Keir said: “That is a real gap in the system and you can’t just brush it away.”
Despite claims he dithered over Leicester’s lockdown, the national lockdown, testing and more, the PM declared: “We are the builders – they’re the blockers.
“We’re the doers, they’re the ditherers.
“We’re going to get on with it and move this country forward.”