Sir Keir Starmer accused Boris Johnson of being “utterly unable” to improve the NHS, warning: “24 Hours in A&E used to be a TV programme, now it’s his policy.”
The Labour leader opted to focus his attacks at Prime Minister’s Questions on problems within the health service rather than on Mr Johnson’s leadership woes.
Speaking in a raucous House of Commons, Mr Johnson at one stage advised Sir Keir: “This line of attack is not working.”
Opening the exchanges between the pair, Sir Keir responded to the noises heard as Mr Johnson entered the chamber by saying: “I couldn’t make out whether that introductory noise was cheers or boos.
“The trouble is I don’t know whether it is directed at me or him.”
“Booze in Durham,” a Conservative MP called back, a reference to an investigation into a gathering during lockdown involving the Labour leader.
After Sir Keir highlighted unhappiness among patients with GP services, he said: “The Prime Minister’s ‘big plan’ act is so tired that even once-loyal MPs don’t believe him, and it’s not just waiting for a GP – it’s waiting for all NHS treatment.”
He went on to raise concerns over patients being put at risk by a “failure to fix wanting and inadequate” NHS buildings, a line of attack Mr Johnson labelled “satirical” before arguing: “Attacking our hospital building programme, when they were the authors of the PFI scheme that bankrupted so many hospitals.”
Sir Keir went on to tell the Commons: “Pretending no rules were broken didn’t work, pretending the economy is booming didn’t work, and pretending to build 40 new hospitals won’t work either.
“They want him to change but he can’t. As always with this Prime Minister, when he’s falling short he just changes the rules and lowers the bar.
“In March, he proposed changing the NHS contract – he wants to double the length of time patients can be made to wait for surgery – from one year to two years.
“On top of that he scraps zero-tolerance of 12-hour waits at A&E – 24 Hours in A&E used to be a TV programme, now it’s his policy.”
Mr Johnson countered: “This line of attack is not working.”
He added: “We’ve not only raised the standard in the NHS, we’re not only reducing waiting times for those who have had to wait the longest, but what we’re doing more fundamentally is what the people of this country can see is simple common-sense and that’s using our economic strength to invest in doctors and nurses, and get people on the ward, giving people their scans, screens and tests in a more timely manner.”
Sir Keir warned “things are getting worse, not better” in the NHS under Mr Johnson before he highlighted two cases of patients who have suffered.
MPs heard the first was a semi-professional footballer who tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) but had to crowdfund for a private operation due to a two-year wait for surgery.
The second was of a man who called 999 six times after his mother woke up unable to breathe, with Sir Keir explaining: “In his last call he said: ‘I rang an hour ago for an ambulance as she had difficulty breathing, and now she’s dead.’”
Sir Keir pressed Mr Johnson to admit these people “deserve better than a wanting and inadequate Government utterly unable to improve our NHS”.
Mr Johnson said he believed all MPs had sympathy with the cases, adding: “I share their feelings, but when you look at what this Government is doing, we are making colossal investments in our NHS, we’re cutting waiting times, we’re raising standards, we’re paying nurses more, we’re supporting our fantastic NHS, and by the way, (Sir Keir) continually came to the House and said we had the worst Covid record in Europe – turned out to be completely untrue, he still hasn’t retracted it.”