In the prime minister’s latest clash with the Labour leader in Parliament, Johnson came under fire over the UK’s testing and tracing record during the COVID-19 outbreak.
As well as saying Starmer was being “negative”, he accused him of “feigned ignorance”. Starmer issued a stern response, saying: “Thirty-four thousand deaths is negative.”
The UK’s latest official death toll is actually 35,341, the second highest in the world.
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Starmer had asked Johnson about the UK’s testing and tracing record, pointing to the success of Germany and South Korea in using testing and contact tracing to restrict the number of cases and deaths in those countries.
The UK dropped contact tracing – in which the authorities get in touch with people who have come into contact with a coronavirus-positive patient – at the beginning of the outbreak in March.
The government has said this was because it didn’t have the necessary testing capacity at the time.
Starmer said: “Despite 2 million tests having been carried out, there has been no effective tracing in place since 12 March when 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?”
Johnson hit back by accusing Starmer of “feigned ignorance”.
The PM said the UK will have a new test and trace system “that will enable us to make progress”, saying 24,000 people have been recruited “capable of tracking the contacts of 10,000 new cases a day”.
With the latest figures showing there were 2,412 new cases on Tuesday, the PM also pointed to “vast progress”. Two weeks prior, there had been a daily increase of 4,406.
“I have great confidence that by 1 June, we will have a system that will help us very greatly to defeat this disease and move the country forward,” Johnson said.
“I hope, therefore, he will abandon his slightly negative tone and support it.”
Starmer, taking to the despatch box, stood and paused, before finally saying: “Thirty-four thousand deaths is negative. Of course I’m going to ask about that – and quite right too.
“The PM knows – he says feigned ignorance – for 10 weeks there has been no tracing, unlike Germany and South Korea. There’s no getting away from that, no getting away from that.”
The heated exchange comes after Starmer called out Johnson last week over 10,000 “unexplained” care home deaths.