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Boris Johnson has made a final appeal to Conservative backbenchers to support his new system of tiered coronavirus restrictions, saying the country just needed to “hold our nerve” for a few more months before the likely mass deployment of vaccines.
But the prime minister seemed set to face a significant rebellion, with a series of his MPs telling the Commons they could not back the plan.
Johnson also faced criticism from Labour, with its leader, Keir Starmer, saying he was not being honest about the likely need for even tougher rules before spring.
Opening the debate ahead of a vote on Tuesday evening in which anything from 30 to 100 Toriescould rebel, Johnson said he accepted many people felt they had been “unfairly” put under higher-than-need rules.
While he announced a much-trailed package of extra support for pubs obliged to close in the higher tiers, Johnson did not offer potential rebels any more tangible concessions, simply reiterating a promise that MPs would vote again on the system on 2 February.
With Labour set to abstain in the vote, the government will almost inevitably win. However, a significant rebellion would be seen as damaging for the prime minister’s authority.
In a speech peppered with hostile interventions from his own MPs, Johnson repeatedly returned to the hope of mass vaccination in the spring.
“All we need to do now is to hold our nerve, until these vaccines are within our grasp, and indeed being injected into our arms,” he said.
However, he warned people had to accept that “no vaccine is here yet”, adding: “We can’t be completely sure when the moment will arrive. And until then, we cannot afford to relax, especially during the cold months of winter.”
The tiers will come into force when the current England-wide lockdown ends on Wednesday, with about 99% of the country put into the top two tiers, meaning significant restrictions on household mixing and on hospitality businesses.
Johnson said pubs that do not serve food, and therefore cannot operate in either tiers 2 or 3 except for takeaway drinks, would get a one-off payment of £1,000, “recognising how hard they’ve been hit by this virus in what is typically their busiest month”.
There was, Johnson said, “a compelling case” to keep a tiered system of restrictions across England, insisting this did nonetheless represent a loosening of rules.
“This is not another lockdown. Nor is this the renewal of existing measures in England,” he said, pointing to the fact that shops, gyms and other businesses can remain open in all tiers.
A number of Conservative MPs responded to the speech by telling Johnson they could not support his plan, including some who voted for the four-week lockdown in November.
Graham Brady, who chairs the influential 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, said that for ministers to so restrict freedoms “they must demonstrate beyond question that they are acting in a way that is both proportionate and absolutely necessary. Today, I believe the government has failed to make that compelling case.”
The former business secretary Andrea Leadsom, who backed the second lockdown, said she had not been swayed by a government analysis of the costs and benefits of Covid restrictions, released on Monday.
She said: “I want to support my government and my prime minister in the lobby this evening, but I can’t and won’t inflict deliberate harm on my constituency unless I can see for myself that to do nothing would be worse.”
Damian Green, the Ashford MP who was Theresa May’s deputy, and also supported the lockdown, said the decision to put Kent in tier 3 had promoted “the most angry emails over a weekend since the Dominic Cummings trip to Barnard Castle”.
The tier system would not win proper public support, Green argued. “I very much hope the government will come forward with some that do reach that public assent, but these proposals, I’m afraid, don’t achieve that, so I’ll be voting against them.”
Responding for Labour, Starmer said the party recognised the need for continued restrictions, adding: “But I am far from convinced by what the prime minister has said today. In particular, the economic package is nowhere near sufficient to support the communities most affected.”
Listing previous Covid measures, Starmer said Johnson had “a record of overpromising and underdelivering” and was not being honest about what may lie ahead.
“I accept the case for restrictions. We will not stand in the way of these regulations,” he said.
“But I’m not going to stand here and pretend, as the prime minister does, that this is going to be the plan that will solve it all – vote for this, and it will all be fine through to Easter. That is not going to happen, and nobody should vote on that basis today.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘Hold our nerve’ until vaccines arrive, Johnson tells English Covid tier rebels | World news