Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson have clashed at prime minister’s questions over the delay to the full reopening of schools, with the Labour leader saying Johnson should take “responsibility for his own failures” on the issue.

In an increasingly heated exchange, Starmer repeatedly accused the government of having no coherent plan for the return of all pupils, after it emerged that the bulk will remain at home until September at the earliest due to the coronavirus.

In response, Johnson accused Starmer of inconsistency on the subject, and insisted he had sought to take a consensual approach.

The Labour leader challenged Johnson about why he had not replied to a letter seeking a cross-party taskforce on the return of schools, castigating what he said was ministerial chaos on the subject.

“What it required for that to happen was a robust national plan, consensus among all key stakeholders and strong leadership from the top,” Starmer told the Commons. “All three are missing. The current arrangements lie in tatters. Parents have lost confidence in the government’s approach. Millions of children will miss six months’ worth of schooling, and inequality will now go up.”

Johnson replied that he had been “in contact with the right honourable gentleman via a modern device called the telephone”, an apparent reference to a previous conference call with all opposition leaders, which was not in response to Starmer’s letter.

“Last week he was telling the house that it was not yet safe for kids to go back to school,” the prime minister said. “This week he’s saying that not enough kids are going back to school. I really think he needs to make up his mind.”

Starmer responded: “The taskforce has never been the subject of a conversation between him and me, one to one or any other circumstance on the telephone. He knows it, so please drop that.”

He said the government had instead tried to push ahead with its plans for schools with no consultation. “It’s no good the prime minister flailing around, trying to blame others. It’s time he took responsibility for his own failures.”

Starmer demanded the government look at the possibility of erecting temporary school buildings to provide more space for pupils to return.

Johnson replied: “He still can’t work out whether he’s saying schools are not safe enough, or whether we should be going back more quickly. He can’t have it both ways.”

This was wrong, Starmer argued. “I want as many children to go back to school as possible, as soon as possible, when it’s safe. I’ve been saying that like a broken record for weeks on end.”

Earlier in the exchange, Johnson had insisted it was not yet possible to compare the UK’s high coronavirus death rate with that in other countries.

Starmer noted death totals ranging from more than 40,000 to above 60,000, saying: “Those overall numbers haunt us.

“These are amongst the highest numbers anywhere in the world. Last week the prime minister said he was proud of the government’s record. But there’s no pride in those figures, is there?”

The PM replied: “The best scientific evidence and advice is that we must wait until the epidemic has been through its whole cycle in order to draw the relevant international comparisons.”

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