Labour has condemned the government for using taxpayers’ money to produce a documentary about the vaccine rollout entitled “A Beacon of Hope”, as party strategists fear the Tories will benefit from a “vaccine bounce” in May’s local elections.
Downing Street tweeted a short video on Wednesday, featuring clips of interviews with Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam, as well as Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock.
The strapline read: “Extraordinary. Unexpected. Fantastic. A Beacon of Hope: The UK Vaccine Story. Coming soon.”
With a bumper set of elections due to be held on 6 May, Labour suspects the government of trying to turn the feelgood factor from the vaccination programme and the lifting of lockdown restrictions to its political advantage.
“The government must come clean about how much taxpayers’ money was spent making this ‘documentary’ and for what purpose,” the deputy Labour leader, Angela Rayner, said.
“Sorry for the spoiler, but we already know the plot twist will be the prime minister choosing to cut the pay of the same nurses delivering the vaccine to the British people, while handing out billions in contracts to Conservative party donors and cronies.”
A No 10 source conceded that the film was taxpayer-funded, but stressed that it was made in-house, as a thank you to those involved in the successful programme, which has seen 22.8m people receive their first dose.
“Purdah” rules preclude the government from using official resources to produce party political material during pre-election periods. The government has not yet announced when that period will begin in relation to the local elections, but it is expected to be later this month or in early April.
The row about the glossy video came as Keir Starmer prepares to launch Labour’s campaign for May’s elections, using the government’s plan for a 1% NHS pay rise as a political dividing line.
The SNP is hoping to secure a pro-independence majority at Holyrood in the 6 May elections, while all 60 seats in the Welsh Senedd are up for grabs, as well as a string of metro mayoralties and local councils in England.
Starmer will launch Labour’s campaign at a virtual event on Thursday where he will speak alongside the new Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, the Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, and other senior party figures.
His team believe the government’s recommendation that only a 1% pay increase for NHS workers in England is affordable is a damaging misreading of the public mood in the wake of the pandemic.
Despite the fact that local government has no role in setting nurses’ pay, and health is devolved in Scotland and Wales, Starmer will highlight the issue as evidence that the Conservatives are offering “more of the same”.
In a speech at the campaign launch event, Starmer will say: “These elections are about how Britain recovers. How our communities and public services are run and how we reward our frontline workers.
“There’s a simple choice ahead of us: to change, or to go back to more of the same.”
His team hope that pre-election broadcast impartiality rules that will come into effect later this month will help them to get more of a hearing, after many months in which public health messaging from government ministers has understandably filled the airwaves.
“Our priorities are your priorities: securing the economy, protecting the NHS, rebuilding Britain,” Starmer will say. “So, if you want to support our nurses, to rebuild social care and to reward our key workers, then vote Labour.”
With Labour keen to regain ground in Scotland he will also attack the SNP, accusing them of being “too busy fighting among themselves to fight for the Scottish people,” in the wake of the high-profile clashes between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond in recent weeks.
Meanwhile Labour wrote to Johnson on Wednesday, asking him to correct the record after Downing Street repeatedly refused to acknowledge that the prime minister was mistaken when he said the Labour party had voted against an NHS pay deal.
Asked about Johnson’s assertion at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday that Keir Starmer and his party had blocked an NHS budget bill, Allegra Stratton, the No 10 press secretary, declined 12 times to accept that he had been wrong, and indicated that he did not feel the need to correct the record.