PM battles backbench rebellion over tougher lockdown tiers

21 November 2020, 22:30 | Updated: 22 November 2020, 15:52

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street wearing a face mask
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street wearing a face mask. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

Boris Johnson is facing a rebellion from 70 backbench MPs over his Covid winter plan, which will enforce tough tiers across England once the national lockdown ends.

Boris Johnson is expected to detail his plan for winter this week, which includes details on how families can see their loved ones at Christmas, to MPs on Monday.

The "Covid winter plan" is expected to place more areas into the higher tiers from December 2 to keep the virus under control, with some tiers being strengthened to safeguard the gains made during the national lockdown.

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But he faces a rebellion from backbench Tory MPs who are opposed to new restrictions.

On Sunday, 70 Conservative MPs, who are members of the Covid Recovery Group, wrote to the PM saying they would rebel over returning to a tiered system without proof that they “will save more lives than they cost.”

The Prime Minister will accept that the measures are difficult but will make clear they are not to last longer than is absolutely necessary and will take into account the need to support the economy.

Speaking to Tom Swarbrick on LBC, Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said the new tier system is "not clear".

Asked what his understanding of the system is, Mr Burnham said: “We will find out next week it would seem.

"It is not being done by discussion or negotiation this time, which is not good in my view.

"I think this has to be done more in consultation. We are expecting to be in one of the higher tiers, I think it is fair to say, Tom. I’m a little worried today by some of this talk of stronger or tougher tiers.

He continued: "We have been under restrictions here since the summer now and you can’t ask people to live under perpetual restrictions or lockdowns. I am a little worried about what I’m hearing to be honest and I hope the government will take a proportionate and balanced approach.

“I wasn’t saying no restrictions and I’m not arguing for that today.

“There is a need for restrictions but they need to be proportionate.

“We have had quite a significant change although it is from a very high level so our cases are still high, but the trend is down.

“There will need to be some restrictions but get rid of the curfew, open the gyms, allow outdoor sport, because otherwise people’s mental health will really suffer throughout December, January and February.”

During a vote on the current four-week system earlier this month, 32 Conservatives rebelled to oppose the measures and 17 more, including former prime minister Theresa May, abstained.

The CRG letter said: "We cannot live under such a series of damaging lockdowns and apparently arbitrary restrictions, and expect our constituents to be grateful for being let out to enjoy the festive season, only to have strict restrictions imposed on them afterwards that cause them health problems and destroy their livelihood."

Read more: Families could be allowed to meet for 'up to a week' over Christmas

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But Downing Street will hope an easing at Christmas, potential vaccines on the horizon and new scientific evidence will lessen the scale of a rebellion, with the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) expected to publish papers on Monday stating that the previous tiers were not strong enough.

The Cabinet is expected to discuss and sign off the plan on Sunday before Mr Johnson announces it to Parliament the following day when the full details are expected.

The plan will set out how people will be able to spend their Christmas, but ministers have made clear that the festive season will be different to normal, with some restrictions expected to remain in place.

Ministers will set out what tier each area will be placed into on Thursday and MPs are expected to be given the vote to approve the new tiering system, as promised by Mr Johnson, in the days before it comes into force.

They are optimistic that restrictions can be gradually reduced in the run-up to spring, providing vaccines are approved by regulators, allowing a plan for the roll-out to begin next month before a wider programme in the new year.

The plans emerged as the Government announced a further 341 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Saturday, bringing the UK total to 54,626.

Labour has so far been supportive of the need for restrictions to slow the spread of Covid-19, and a full-scale Commons defeat on the plan is unlikely.

But shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds, in a speech ahead of the Downing Street announcement, said the nation could not be allowed to return "to the shambles we had before this lockdown" in calling for "clarity" on economic support.

A No 10 spokeswoman said: "Everyone's efforts during the current national restrictions have helped bring the virus back under control, slowed its spread and eased pressures on the NHS.

"But the Prime Minister and his scientific advisers are clear the virus is still present - and without regional restrictions it could quickly run out of control again before vaccines and mass testing have had an effect.

"That would put in jeopardy the progress the country has made, and once again risk intolerable pressure on the NHS."

A Labour spokesperson said: “We will look closely at any proposals the Government brings forward. The aim must now be to bring certainty for business and confidence for people across the country.

“Throughout this crisis Labour has been clear – we must follow the scientific evidence to reduce infections, save lives and protect the economy. There now needs to be total clarity about what we are moving to once the full national lockdown eases, with measures people can follow and proper packages of support for those businesses that are unable to fully reopen. The previous system was failing - simply returning to it without other measures in place will not work.

“This lockdown period was also the Government’s opportunity to finally fix the test, trace and isolate system ahead of the winter. Boris Johnson must now lay out in detail what he has done to achieve this in recent weeks.”