MP quits government as Starmer calls for Covid shutdown

13 October 2020, 22:59 | Updated: 14 October 2020, 07:24

Boris Johnson was forced to fight a war on multiple fronts on Tuesday against Labour and Tory rebels
Boris Johnson was forced to fight a war on multiple fronts on Tuesday against Labour and Tory rebels. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The pressure on Boris Johnson is ramping up following the resignation of a ministerial aide and calls for a nationwide, 'circuit breaker' lockdown from Labour.

Although the loss of parliamentary private secretary Chris Green on Tuesday will not derail the government, it nonetheless highlights the discontent within the Conservative Party.

The Bolton West MP - who also tendered a resignation during Theresa May's time in No 10 - stepped down as PPS to Lords Leader Baroness Evans over "increasing concerns" about the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

It forced the prime minister to fight a war on multiple fronts as it came just minutes after Sir Keir Starmer threw down the gauntlet in calling for a 'circuit breaker' lockdown.

After months of working with and voting for the government on policy in a display of unity throughout the pandemic, the Labour leader took his biggest political risk since being elected in calling for the two-to-three-week shutdown.

Read more: Chris Green quits as junior govt member over Bolton local lockdown

Read more: Sir Keir calls for 'two to three-week circuit break' national lockdown

Sir Keir Starmer calls for short national 'circuit breaker' lockdown

Sir Keir knew it would put the PM in an uncomfortable position, given that Mr Johnson previously rejected the idea despite his own scientific advisers recommending he adopt it.

But, as they say, bad things come in threes.

In the Commons, 42 Tory rebels expressed their dismay at the 10pm curfew by voting against the government's new three-tier lockdown system.

'We have evidence that short lockdowns should work' - professor tells LBC

Although merely a symbolic gesture - as the new Covid Alert Level regulations supersede other measures, including the 10pm curfew, and the government motion passed - a few dozen Conservative MPs defying the prime minister will be enough to send shivers down his spine.

Read more: PM goes against experts to reject 'circuit breaker' coronavirus lockdown

Read more: UK Covid deaths increase by 143 in biggest daily rise for four months

Read more: Matt Hancock attacks 'flawed goal' of coronavirus herd immunity

Iain Dale questions Deputy Labour Leader over calls for lockdown

Mr Green explained in his resignation letter that he stepped down due to the local lockdown in Bolton saying it "clearly has not worked" and that such measures are "worse than the disease".

The MP said the local lockdown measures in Greater Manchester have "failed to control the number of positive tests" in his borough.

He expressed concern over people seeing their GPs less frequently and them being "frightened" to access other vital treatments.

Writing to the PM, Mr Green said: "I believe that there are better alternatives to the government's approach, so I therefore tender my resignation."

The PPS criticised the coronavirus restrictions in his constituency of Bolton West, saying the "attempted cure is worse than the disease".

"By taking the current approach to Covid-19 we are creating many other health problems, which are leading to pain, suffering and death."

The MP said the closure of pubs, restaurants and cafes, along with decreased footfall on high streets, had "brought many family-owned businesses in my constituency to the brink of collapse and pushed others over the edge".

He added: "There is a healthy debate on how we can eliminate this coronavirus or how we can live with it and this is being led by many distinguished academics, epidemiologists and other specialists."

"This is Labour playing politics"

Sir Keir's call for a 'circuit breaker' national lockdown came following the prime minister rejecting the request from his top scientists.

The Labour leader said the figures are "stark and heading in the wrong direction," adding that the government has "lost control of the virus" and is "no longer following scientific advice."

Sir Keir said a 'circuit breaker' would not mean closing schools, but would mean only essential travel, people working from home where possible, and closing pubs, bars and restaurants.

He said there is "no longer time to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt. The government’s plan simply isn’t working. Another course is needed".

Directly addressing Boris Johnson, Sir Keir urged him to "act now and break the cycle".

Last month, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggested immediately introducing a national lockdown, lasting between two and three weeks, to halt the rapid spread of the virus.

But as Mr Johnson laid out his plans for how to tackle the rapidly growing numbers of infections while keeping as much of the economy open as possible, the PM only imposed stricter measures on Merseyside and appeared adamant to continue localised lockdowns.

He seemed to reject the idea of sweeping national measures when he laid out the new tiered system of restrictions on Monday, which includes the widespread closure of the hospitality sector and banning social interactions between households at its toughest level.

Public health expert reacts to Starmer's calls for national lockdown

On Tuesday, the Labour leader said: “That’s why I am calling for a two-to-three week circuit break in England in line with Sage’s recommendation.

“A temporary set of clear and effective restrictions designed to get the R rate down and reverse the trend of infections and hospital admissions.

“This would not mean closing schools. But if this happens imminently… it can be timed to run across half-term to minimise disruption. But a circuit break would require significant sacrifices across the country.

“It would mean only essential work and travel. That everyone who can work from home should do so. Non-essential offices should be closed. Household mixing should be restricted to one household except for those who’ve formed support ‘bubbles’.

"And all pubs, bars and restaurants would be closed for two-to-three weeks – but compensated so that no business loses out because of the sacrifices we all need to make. It should also mean the UK Parliament moves to remote working."

He added: “A circuit break would also provide an opportunity to reset and to rectify some of the mistakes the government has made. In particular, to get a grip on testing and hand over track and trace to local authorities. A circuit break will have to be accompanied by extensive support for jobs, businesses and our local economies.

“Because if we’re requiring businesses to close we must provide the financial support necessary to protect people and our local communities - because every job matters and every business matters.

“Introducing these kinds of restrictions is not something anyone wants to do. This was not inevitable. But it is now necessary if we are to protect the NHS, fix testing, and get control of the virus."

In a message to the prime minister, Sir Keir said: "You know that the science backs this approach. You know that the restrictions you're introducing won't be enough.

"You know that a circuit break is needed now to get this virus under control.

"You can't keep delaying this and come back to the House of Commons every few weeks with another plan that won't work.

"So act now. Break the cycle. If you do, you will have the votes in the House of Commons - I can assure you of that. You don't need to balance the needs of your party against the national interest."

The Liberal Democrats have also backed a 'circuit breaker', with leader Sir Ed Davey tweeting: "It’s an extraordinary moment in the covid crisis when the govt begins ignoring SAGE & even the CMO says the tier system doesn’t go far enough.

"We support a circuit breaker - otherwise the cost to lives & livelihoods as well as to jobs in our communities may be too harsh to bear."

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