Boris Johson is facing significant opposition from within his own party over plans to move England into a tougher three-tiered system after the lockdown ends.
The Prime Minister is set to detail his ‘winter Covid plan’ on Monday with reports today that it will include a continued ban on household mixing and more areas in the highest category of restrictions.
But Mr Johnson faces the threat of a backbench rebellion as dozens of Tory MPs have said they will not back the measures without scientific evidence they ‘will save more lives than they cost’.
A letter from the Covid recovery group (CRG) is said to have been signed by 70 Conservative MPs.
Only the chairs Mark Harper and Steve Baker have been publicly identified so far.
But MP for Bolton West Chris Green voted against the second lockdown and is among those who has made clear he opposes tougher measures being brought in.
In a lengthy blog post published on Thursday, Mr Green said as a Member of Parliament he has ‘unique insight’ into the lives of his constituents and that many of them have hit ‘rock bottom’.
Outlining his concerns about cancers going undiagnosed, pregnant women not having support in hospital, and businesses going under due to covid restrictions, he said: “So many months ago, when the first national lockdown was imposed, I supported the Government.
“Now, our understanding has changed. I voted against this second national lockdown and fear a third in the New Year because the cost of it is too high compared to the threat.”
He added: “The cycle of lockdowns has failed and the attempted cure is worse than the disease.
“The Government, who have been supported by the opposition every step of the way, has the opportunity to reset their approach to restore normality whilst ensuring that those who need protection continue to receive it.”
It remains to be seen how significant the challenge to the government’s strategy within the Conservative party and opposition may be.
But Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Sunday suggested providing the evidence they require will be a tall order.
Labour voted with the government on the four-week national lockdown at the start of November.
Shadow Business Minister Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, today called on the government to give businesses ‘a clear blueprint’ for what will happen after December 2.
“Businesses are at the end of their tether and have very little slack in their budgets to risk reopening without a clear plan, due to mixed messages from government hitting cashflow and confidence,” she said.
“That’s why Ministers must end the dither and delay and urgently set out a blueprint for businesses desperate to plan ahead.
“The Prime Minister has wasted weeks on the Number 10 psychodrama, instead of putting a clear plan in place.
“This Government’s incompetence has cost struggling businesses far too much.
“Gaps in support mean many face a bleak Winter, whilst late guidance and shifting sands because Ministers haven’t got a grip on the virus, threaten the futures of so many more.”
According to briefings in the Sunday national newspapers, the government is considering a suspension of the tier rules for up to five days over Christmas.
The Chancellor Mr Sunak swarned “Christmas is not going to be normal this year” but said ministers are trying to work out a way for people to see their loved ones over the festive period.
Asked if the Government will provide the analysis the CRG has demanded, the Chancellor told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “It’s very hard to be precise in estimating the particular impact of a one-week restriction.”
On Saturday, the CRG warned it “cannot support” a tiered approach unless the Government produces a cost-benefit analysis showing the plans “will save more lives than they cost”.
The warning against measures inflicting “huge health and economic costs” came in a letter to the Prime Minister, which sources close to the group said had been signed by 70 Conservative MPs, though the only signatories identified were the group’s leaders, former Brexit minister Steve Baker and ex-chief whip Mark Harper.
Mr Johnson will announce the full plans for winter in the House of Commons on Monday before ministers outline on Thursday the tier each area will enter.
They are optimistic restrictions can be gradually reduced in the run-up to spring.
Providing vaccines are approved by regulators, the plan is for the rollout to begin next month before a wider programme in the new year.
When the Commons voted on the current lockdown earlier this month, 32 Conservatives rebelled to oppose the measures and 17 more, including former prime minister Theresa May, abstained.
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 saying the previous tiers were not strong enough.
But 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.”
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.
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In one move likely to be welcomed by Conservative rebels, Mr Sunak confirmed to The Andrew Marr Show on the BBC that plans to change the curfew period for pubs and restaurants is “definitely something we’re looking at”.
The Prime Minister is understood to be preparing to unveil a plan so that while last orders must be called at 10pm, people will get an extra hour to finish their food and drinks, with opening hours to be extended until 11pm.
Sage member Professor Calum Semple told Ridge “in reality we can’t ban Christmas” because it would “simply lead to breaches”.
He said any change to the 10pm curfew would be better informed by an understanding of human behaviour to prevent everyone filling the streets at closing time.
“History has got a lot to teach us, in the years of prohibition they tried to change the hours, they tried to say you could only drink if you had a meal and everyone is very inventive and finds ways around it,” he said.
“Fiddling at the edges of something like drinking-up times or pubs’ closing times is simply not an effective mechanism.”
Sage colleague Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter said it is “perfectly reasonable” to return to a tiered approach but warned a national easing over Christmas will have costs.
“There will be a price to pay for it, obviously, you relax restrictions and infection rates go up, you constrain and infection rates will come down as they are going down at the moment,” he told Times Radio.
A Labour spokesman said “we will look closely at any proposals the Government brings forward” but called for “proper packages of support” for businesses that are unable to fully reopen.
“The previous system was failing – simply returning to it without other measures in place will not work,” he added.
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.