Sir Keir Starmer wants 10 million more people to be offered a flu jab as part of efforts to protect the NHS this winter.
Everyone aged over 50 should be given a free flu vaccine to safeguard the NHS against the “perfect storm” of a winter flu outbreak and a resurgence of coronavirus, Sir Keir Starmer has told Sky News.
The Labour leader said the government “owed it to the NHS” to ramp up its vaccination programme this year in order to prepare for what could be a very difficult winter, as he demanded that 10 million more people be offered a flu jab.
“We owe it to them to ensure that we take the preventive steps going into this winter,” he said.
“We’re calling for vaccination for all those over 50.
“It will be the perfect storm this winter if we had an outbreak of influenza at the same time as the possibility of a second spike in COVID-19 because the symptoms are very similar.”
Sir Keir said a larger-than-usual vaccination programme ahead of this winter would “prevent the NHS from being stretched in the way they have been in the last few months”.
About 25 million people are normally vaccinated for flu every winter.
The over-65s, pregnant women and those with certain medical conditions are all eligible for a free jab.
Sir Keir said vaccinating an additional 10 million people aged over 50 was “doable”.
Number 10 has said the government will get “significant extra supply” of flu jabs for the coming winter.
Speaking to journalists on Friday following Labour’s proposal, a government spokesman said: “It’s already freely available to those most at risk of flu – over 65, pregnant women, carers and primary school children.
“It’s especially important this year, and the government will get significant extra supply to increase uptake in these groups and will make further announcements shortly on increasing eligibility.”
The Labour leader’s demand comes amid concerns the UK could be heading for a second spike of COVID-19 cases in the winter.
Sir Keir disagreed and said, while he thought more local outbreaks were “likely”, he didn’t think a second wave was inevitable.
He also said an inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis was “inevitable”, but now is not the time.
“At the moment I think it’s important that we concentrate on the job in hand, which is ensuring we have got the health crisis under control,” he said.
Sir Keir accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of being “asleep at the wheel” and being too slow – be it on going into lockdown or getting the test and trace system up and running – in his decision-making.
“It’s the speed of decisions that’s just got to improve going forward if we’re to prepare for what might happen this winter,” he said.
The Labour leader, who will mark his three-month anniversary as party leader on Saturday, has become more robust in his criticism of Mr Johnson as the COVID-19 crisis has gone on.
This is perhaps with one eye on the prime minister’s poll ratings, which are falling through this crisis as the Labour leader’s tick up.
A recent poll showed 37% of people thought Sir Keir would make the best prime minister, two points ahead of Mr Johnson.
In another poll earlier this month, almost half (48%) said Sir Keir was doing well, against 21% saying he was doing badly.
This gave him a net approval rating of 27 points, as Mr Johnson’s approval rating sank to -7.
Sir Keir claimed Mr Johnson was a prime minister who “refused to see problems” and was being “flippant about the risks”.
But he stopped short of calling his rival a poor leader, saying instead that Mr Johnson “has not led us through this crisis in the right way”.
Sir Keir acknowledged he has a mountain to climb to become the UK’s next prime minister.
He needs to increase Labour’s number of seats by 60% at the next general election (123 more MPs) to win an outright majority of just one.
It is something which has never been done before, and some may think it’s an impossible task.
“I don’t accept it is impossible, I do accept it’s hard work, it’s hard yards, we are going to sweat blood,” he said, repeating his well-worn line from the Labour leadership race that his job as leader is to “restore trust” in the party as “a force for good and a force for change”.
Part of that process is to put clear blue water between himself and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which proved toxic for so many voters at last December’s election.
Sir Keir has overhauled Labour’s front bench as well as the party’s hierarchy in the early weeks of his leadership.
This is not without tensions, which blew into the open last week when he sacked his former leadership rival – and notable Corbyn supporter – Rebecca Long-Bailey from his frontbench for retweeting what was described as an antisemitic article.
That decision provoked a backlash from the left of the Labour Party, but Sir Keir insisted his decision had “nothing to do with factionalism” and everything to do with his commitment to stamping out antisemitism.
“I took the view the article that Rebecca Long Bailey tweeted about was antisemitic,” he said.
“I asked her to deal with that and took the decision when she didn’t that I had to remove her from the shadow cabinet.
“This is not a left-right issue. I have no intention to purge the party at all.”
Rehabilitating the party in the eyes of voters is a big task.
Sir Keir – echoing the findings of Labour’s internal inquiry into the election – said the party’s drubbing at the ballot box can be blamed on the leadership, an unrealistic manifesto and Brexit.
And he said that conversations with voters are not so much around policy arguments as around whether they believe he’s “really listening” to them.
“That’s the test they’re setting me and the answer to that is yes I am,” Sir Keir added.
But what he is yet to do is actually set out his offer to them; his own “New Deal” for how Labour might lead the country out of the economic crisis caused by coronavirus.
He told me he’s a radical, but how radical will Sir Keir be when it comes to the economy?
The left of the Labour Party believe the Corbyn programme – and the former leader’s promise to “rewrite the rules of the economy” – is even more relevant now than it was at the election.
Sir Keir said: “We basically got smashed at the general election but, going forward, I think coronavirus and the economic crisis I feel is on its way will mean the Labour Party really needs to carry on putting forward radical, innovative, bold policy solutions.
“I think demand for practical policies that protect living standards will actually increase in the months and the years ahead.”
And how does Sir Keir differentiate Labour against a Conservative Party that is drawing up a new economic consensus, aimed squarely at holding onto those working-class voters that turned to the Tories in December?
If Mr Johnson really does shift to the centre-left on the economy, what space is there for Sir Keir to take back Labour’s “Red Wall” of seats and more?
The Labour leader is leaving these questions for another day, with four years until a general election.
As one senior party figure put it to me: “It will be foolhardy to write a manifesto now.”
The more imminent challenge is to hold the party together and be heard by the electorate.
As with any opposition, Sir Keir’s fate is inextricably entwined with Mr Johnson’s success or failure.
That war will be fought over months and years.
For now, the Labour leader is happy to focus all his firepower on pressing the prime minister on the imminent jobs crisis and public health threat as we look to the winter.