A second lockdown would be an economic “disaster” for the UK, Boris Johnson said as he acknowledged that the testing system was experiencing “huge problems.”
In his second appearance before the Commons powerful liaison committee this year, the Prime Minister fielded questions on the surge in covid-19 infections, testing shortages and his handling of the Brexit negotiations.
During the 103-minute session, Mr Johnson insisted that reimposing nationwide restrictions would be “completely wrong for this country” and warned that the impact on the public finances would be “disastrous.”
However, he pushed back against criticism of the tightening of social distancing measures through the rule of six, telling MPs that ministers would do everything necessary to “defeat the disease”.
Schools contributing to testing shortages
With the Government implementing rationing to cope with a surge in demand for covid-19 tests, Mr Johnson suggested that overly cautious parents and teachers could be exacerbating shortages nationwide.
Asked by former business secretary Greg Clark whether the UK had sufficient testing capacity, Mr Johnson said the “short answer is no” but insisted that ministers would “work night and day” to bolster capacity in the coming weeks.
While acknowledging the system was facing “huge problems” he pointed out that the Government had already “expanded testing enormously”, with the UK testing more people per head than Germany, France and Spain.
But in order to cope with surging demand, he said ministers intended to hit 500,000 tests per day by the end of October, which he said would make a “very substantial difference.”
Pressed on why shortages were occurring, Mr Johnson said demand had accelerated in recent weeks partly because people were seeking to be “released to get on with their lives in the normal way.”
Although this was “perfectly reasonable,” he said the guidance made clear that people should only seek a test when they have symptoms.
On schools, he added that teachers should not be sending home whole year groups or classroom bubbles until a pupil in that cohort had test positive for covid-19.
“It’s very important that teachers, parents, should look at the guidance…about when you should get a test,” he continued.
Quizzed on the ambition to roll out “Moonshot” mass testing in the future, Mr Johnson admitted that the UK was still a “long way off” rapid pregnancy-style tests, which he said could liberate sectors such as the arts and spectator sport.
More deaths to come
Mr Johnson pushed back against calls for England to follow Scotland and Wales in exempting younger children from the new “rule of six”, pointing out it was “alas a fact of the disease that is readily transmissible between children and adults.”
Asked by Labour’s Catherine McKinnell whether he would consider looking again at the restrictions, the Prime Minister said it risked increasing the risk at a time when transmission between the young to the old was already on the rise.
He added that incidence of the disease among those aged over 80 had increased significantly over recent days, and now stood at 12 people per 100,000.
And while the number of cases remains far fewer than during the peak of the first wave, he warned that this trend would result in an uptick of fatalities.
“Alas, although the number of cases, symptomatic or asymptomatic, is obviously far smaller than it was in the Spring, we must expect those infections to lead, proportionally, to mortality,” Mr Johnson added.
Asked by Conservative MP Will Wragg when he would hold a public inquiry into the Government’s response to the pandemic, Mr Johnson said that dwelling on the subject would not a “good use of official time at the moment.”
Refused to back airport testing
The Prime Minister played down the effectiveness of testing in airports as he was told that in Italy it could soon be possible to receive a test within 30 minutes after arriving at the terminal.
On Wednesday Italy announced its ambition for covid-free flights with rapid tests for all passengers before they board in an attempt to save the airline industry.
Fiumicino airport in Rome, which already offers rapid testing to passengers arriving from Greece, Spain, Malta and Croatia, will today become the first European airport to test departing passengers as part of an initial trial involving flights to Milan.
However, Mr Johnson told the committee that airport tests gave people a “false sense of security” because in a large number of cases they gave “false negative” results.
While ministers are engaged in talks with the UK aviation industry on the issue, Number 10 has also repeatedly signalled its resistance to a one-test system.
In comments that will escalate tensions with Brussels, Mr Johnson said he did not believe the bloc was not negotiating in good faith in trade talks and warned the UK could impose “formidable” tariffs in the event of no deal.
Asked why he was seeking to alter parts of the Brexit divorce deal through the Internal Market Bill, Mr Johnson said he was seeking “belt and braces” protections to prevent the EU erecting trade barriers within the UK through “extreme interpretations” of the withdrawal agreement.
He also suggested that the EU was acting in bad faith by threatening to effectively block British food exports in the event of no deal.
When it was pointed out to him that Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, had said the EU was negotiating in good faith, Mr Johnson replied: “It is always possible that I am mistaken and perhaps they will prove my suspicions wrong.
“But in the meantime I would prefer protections that guarantee the integrity of this country and protect against the potential rupture of the United Kingdom.”
In the event that the two sides failed to strike a deal, Mr Johnson also warned that the UK would impose reciprocal tariffs on EU goods in response to any imposed by Brussels.
“Our external tariff regime, were it to come in, would be quite formidable for some of their products and I think that’s even more reason why everybody should want to agree a zero tariff, zero quota arrangement,” he told the committee.
Australian-style ‘deal’ not good for UK
Mr Johnson appeared to row back slightly on his previous claims that exiting the transition period without a trade deal with the EU would be a “good outcome”.
With ministers pushing for a post-Brexit agreement by October 15, the Prime Minister last week said that the UK would “prosper mightily” regardless of whether an agreement was reached.
However, Labour’s Hilary Benn said that in that scenario UK farmers could be faced with tariffs of up to 90 per cent on beef, 60 per cent on lamb, while car manufacturers could face 10 per cent duties.
Responding, Mr Johnson said: “It’s not what this country wants and it’s not what our EU friends and partners want from us.”
Separately, Conservative MP Neil Parish warned that no trade deal could cause disruption to food imports from across the Channel in the new year, at the time of year when the UK is most reliant on EU produce.
However, the Prime Minister said he was “confident” that the Government would be able to keep things “flowing smoothly at the border”.
‘Creative’ replacement for furlough
Mr Johnson appeared to play down the chances of extending the furlough scheme but insisted that the Government would show “creativity and flexibility” in supporting the economy as it is wound down.
Ministers are facing growing calls from MPs and business leaders to continue the payments for the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, and which have a viable future after social distancing ends.
However, when pressed by former Treasury minister Mel Stride, Mr Johnson said the UK had provided one of the most generous schemes around the world, with the Government’s 80 per cent underwriting of wages higher than Germany, France and Spain.
As October approaches, Mr Johnson added that he would be looking to “fight for every sector” of the economy, adding: “We will continue to be intensely creative and flexible.”
He also faced calls to plug the gaps in the Government’s support packages, with Mr Stride warning that there were over 1 million people, among them company owners, the self-employed and freelancers, who had been unable to access schemes.
Mr Johnson said that while he had “real sympathy” for those affected, most people had been able to qualify one of the schemes, with more than £160bn already spent on supporting jobs and businesses.
“We are determined to put our arms around the country,” he added, “[but there must be of course limits.”