Government struggling to defend six-month extension to lockdown powers

22 March 2021, 11:16 | Updated: 22 March 2021, 20:33

MPs are set to approve an extension to the Coronavirus Act later this week
MPs are set to approve an extension to the Coronavirus Act later this week. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

The Government is struggling to defend an expected six-month extension to lockdown powers in England amid fierce criticism.

MPs are set to approve an extension to the Coronavirus Act, which gives the Government emergency powers to tackle the pandemic, later this week.

However, a number of senior Tory MPs are among those to have voiced concerns about the legislation being renewed despite the Prime Minister's roadmap out of lockdown suggesting all restrictions will be lifted by June 21.

READ MORE: Tory rebels challenge PM's plans to extend ‘authoritarian’ lockdown powers until October

READ MORE: 'You're not prepared to answer': Nick Ferrari clashes with minister over lockdown power extension

Some critics say the plan is overly draconian, arguing the success of the vaccination programme means lockdown measures are not needed for this long.

In an attempt to head off any rebellion, Boris Johnson will address the powerful backbench 1922 Committee of Tory MPs this week to defend the roadmap.

Care minister Helen Whatley struggled to justify the measures when challenged by LBC’s Nick Ferrari on Monday morning.

She was quizzed repeatedly about the “authoritarian approach" and why it is necessary until October.

Ms Whatley said three times that the measures include the furlough scheme and sick pay provision for those who need to self-isolate.

She also said Boris Johnson has been "quite clear” that June 21 is “the soonest that we can envisage we can lift all the restrictions", adding: "We are being driven by the data rather than the dates."

However, Nick insisted this did not justify renewing all Coronavirus Act powers that the Government has “enjoyed for the best part of a year”, reiterating “why do we need to take that through to possibly October?”

Struggling to get a satisfactory answer, he said: “You’re not going to answer the question are you? I’ve asked three times minister, why it’s necessary for you to have these laws.”

He later added: “I’m asking why you need emergency powers for an additional six months, you’ve mentioned furlough three times and the fight against coronavirus, you honestly think that’s an adequate answer do you minister?”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told LBC on Monday his “default position” on the extension will be to support it.

He said: “We're not out of the pandemic. We are still rolling out the vaccine and in those circumstances, I think the Government needs these powers and I would be slow to vote against powers which allow statutory sick pay to start on day one, which is very important during the pandemic, and against provisions which say you can't be evicted during the pandemic if you've fallen behind in arrears. 

“We will see what the Government puts on the table but my default position is that we will be supporting the Government on this.”

However, over the weekend a number of senior Tory MPs raised concerns about the Government’s plans.

During an appearance on LBC’s Swarbrick on Sunday, former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: “We're getting mixed messages from the scientists, I must say.

“They said originally that they would be led by the data, not the dates. The problem is now it appears they are being led by the dates, not the data.

“It's very clear that everything is going to plan with regards to the vaccines, and the protection of the UK public, the figures are falling. Dramatically.

“They keep on inventing reasons why we might have to go into another lockdown.”

Sir Iain said the timetable was “looking very slow compared to where we think the reality is.”

Senior Tories from the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) also raised concerns about the plans.

Former minister Steve Baker, the CRG's deputy chairman, said he expects to vote against the measures on Thursday.

In a statement, he said: “With so many vulnerable people now vaccinated, people may ask why the restrictions the Government is bringing in this coming week are tougher than they were last summer when we didn't have a vaccine.

“The detention powers in the Coronavirus Act are disproportionate, extreme, and wholly unnecessary.

“Renewing them would not be reconcilable with the Prime Minister's guarantee that we are on a 'one-way road to freedom' by June 21.”

Backbench Tory MP Mark Harper has challenged the PM on his roadmap, arguing for a swifter unlocking.
Backbench Tory MP Mark Harper has challenged the PM on his roadmap, arguing for a swifter unlocking. Picture: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Media

CRG chairman Mark Harper, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, challenged the Government's thinking on its roadmap to recovery.

He said “reasonable people” would wonder if the Government had struck the right balance in continuing present guidelines curbing family gatherings through Easter.

Mr Harper wrote: “Staying with your family won't just be illegal for Easter weekend, it will be unlawful until May 17 at the earliest - whatever the data say. The road map is 'dates, not data'.”

He questioned “draconian” powers in the legislation, adding the police response in the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard last weekend had been partly the result of “poorly drafted” emergency pandemic laws.