The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, criticised the government over the UK’s “truly dreadful” Covid-19 death rate at prime minister’s questions, saying the country was on course to have one of the worst records in Europe.
Starmer, who was facing Dominic Raab at the despatch box on Wednesday for the second week in a row, said the UK had 27,241 recorded deaths when known hospital and care home figures were combined.
The first secretary hit back and said it was far too early to make international comparisons. Raab was deputising for Boris Johnson as he spent time with his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, after their son was born in the early hours of Wednesday.
Starmer said the government’s advisers had said a figure under 20,000 would be a good outcome in March. “We are clearly way above that number and we are only part way through this crisis. We are possibly on track to have one of the worst death rates in Europe,” he said.
“On Monday, the prime minister said in his short speech that many were looking at our apparent success in the United Kingdom. Does the first secretary agree with me that far from success, these figures are truly dreadful?”
On the 20,000 figure, Raab said the coronavirus pandemic was unprecedented and the scientific and medical advisers’ understanding of the illness had developed since that comment was made.
He also said figures on deaths were collated at different times and they were keen to deliver a clearer breakdown of deaths in NHS and care homes, which they were making progress on.
“I absolutely share his, I guess, our, joint horror at the number of deaths. Tragedies each and every one,” said Raab.
“Equally I’m going to disagree with him that it is far too early to make international comparisons. If they are to be done, they should be on a per capita basis. We are already seeing there are different ways that deaths are measured not just in the UK, but across Europe and across the world.”
On Johnson’s reference, on Monday, that there is a second phase of coronavirus response planning, Raab said it was too early to spell out exact plans.
Raab was also accused of incorrectly saying deaths in care homes were on the decline in a recent statement.
The latest figures released by the Care Quality Commission were 4,343 deaths for the two-week period up to Friday 24 April.
Starmer put it to Raab that deaths in care homes were in fact rising as they fell in the NHS.
In his response, Raab said there were positive signs on the numbers of deaths in care homes but they are “within the margin of error”.
The principle challenge in care homes, unlike in NHS settings, was the ebb and flow of residents and staff and a less centralised structure, he said.