Boris Johnson has sought to deny responsibility for long waits in A&E departments amid media coverage of an NHS winter crisis by saying he leads a “new government” in the last days of the election campaign.
Speaking from the marginal Labour-held seat Grimsby, Johnson apologised to the family of Jack Williment-Barr, a four-year-old obliged to sleep under coats on a hospital floor in Leeds as he waited for a bed, despite having suspected pneumonia.
He talked up planned new investments in the NHS, and sought to distance himself from nearly 10 years of Conservative rule, during some of whichhe served as foreign secretary.
“This is a new government with a new approach, since I’ve come in,” he told LBC. “We’re putting the biggest ever amount into the NHS, £34bn, and we’re hiring 50,000 more nurses.” The 50,000 nurses figure includes the retention of 19,000 who are already employed.
Asked what he would say to the boy’s family, Johnson said: “Of course, I sympathise very much, and I apologise to everybody who has a bad experience. By and large I think the NHS do an amazing job.”
Johnson started the day just after 6am at the fish market in Grimsby, a Tory target seat held by Labour’s Melanie Onn with a majority of 2,565.
He toured the market and watched a live auction before holding up a cod for the cameras and dragging a crate of fish across the warehouse. The PM got a mixed welcome with a number of fish wholesalers saying they were planning to vote for him but one started booing loudly. He was later due to travel to Sunderland to make a speech.
While polling is consistently putting the Conservatives far enough ahead of Labour to seemingly ensure a majority, the party is stressing the need for voters to turn out.
Speaking on Sky News, Rishi Sunak, the chief secretary to the Treasury and one of the most regular Tory spokespeople of recent weeks, rejected the idea that the party seemed well on course to win.
“People remember what happened last time around, and it is a tight election,” he said. “And that’s why the prime minister is out over these three days visiting all parts of this country.”
Speaking on LBC, Johnson promised to “make our case everywhere in the country”, repeatedly hammering home familiar Conservative lines such as delivering Brexit, and the idea that the alternative to a Conservative government is a Labour-SNP coalition.
However, he did not specifically back up a claim by the home secretary, Priti Patel, that Labour’s approach to crime and policing would result in 4,000 extra violent assaults a year, as well as 52 more murders.
Asked how Patel reached such figures, Johnson replied: “I’m sorry, you must forgive me, I haven’t been able to …” before trailing off.
Asked if such predictions were “project fear”, he said: “Well, she’s making a point about crime figures and the need to have robust policing. And I back that idea all the way.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Johnson expressed doubts about the HS2 rail project, saying he expected it to cost “north of £100bn, probably”, which was why the government had ordered a review into it.
“It’s only responsible to the taxpayer to ask whether it’s being sensibly spent, and whether that funding is being prioritised rightly,” he said.
Johnson was similarly equivocal about his views on a third runway at Heathrow airport, something he himself in 2015 vowed to oppose by lying down in front of the construction bulldozers.
Asked if this would happen, he said: “I don’t see much sign of any bulldozers yet.” Pressed on the issue, Johnson added: “I would have to find some way of honouring that promise. Let’s wait and see when the bulldozers arrive.”