Worst of Covid nearly over, Boris Johnson tells Tory tier sceptics

Simon Murphy and Nazia Parveen
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA</span>
Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Boris Johnson has said there is “every reason” to believe “the worst is nearly behind us” as he seeks to win round a 70-strong group of sceptical Tory MPs to head off a backbench rebellion over Covid-19 curbs.

Ahead of Tuesday’s Commons vote on the strengthened three-tier system, the prime minister wrote to the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) – whose members have been pushing for a cost-benefit analysis of the economic, health and social impact of the measures – to quell concerns.

But dozens of Conservative MPs are expected to abstain or vote against measures that would put nearly 99% of England’s population in the top two tiers this week, banning mixing between households indoors and, in tier 3, forcing pubs and cafes to become takeaways.

At the weekend reports emerged that London only avoided being placed under tier 3 – as advocated by Michael Gove – after Treasury figures suggested half a million jobs could be at risk. Rebellious MPs are expected to focus on the economic impact of restrictions elsewhere in the UK this week.

Separately, on Sunday the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, warned the country was at risk of a third wave of coronavirus in the new year if the right balance was not struck on restrictions, and he did not rule out a third national lockdown.

default

In his letter on Saturday, Johnson set out a series of assurances to the CRG, including a commitment to publishing further analysis on Monday.

Appearing to strike a conciliatory tone, Johnson wrote: “As all of us know too well, these are very difficult times for our country and the whole world. No government or parliament has had to grapple with issues of this difficulty and magnitude since the end of the second world war.

“Disagreement on approach is natural, and I hope you recognise that the government is seeking as far as possible to listen to criticism and respond positively to constructive proposals.

“I do believe that the strategy set out is a balanced approach, which helps protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, keeps children attending school, and lets the economy open up in a safe way, and the best way forward.

“There is every reason to hope and believe that the worst is nearly behind us, so now more than ever is the time to demonstrate unity and resolve. As we move from winter to spring, the prospects offered by vaccines and testing mean we can begin the process of recovery in earnest and focus our energies once again on improving the lives of the people we were elected to serve.”

The government’s 80-seat majority is unlikely to be under threat if Labour does not oppose the measures. The party backed the government on previous restrictions but the shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, said Labour was seeking clarity on the new tier system and her party’s support was “not unconditional”.

The prime minister’s letter was different from one he sent to all Tory MPs on Saturday, pledging a “sunset” clause to end the tiers system on 3 February unless MPs vote to retain it. It will be reviewed every fortnight until then.

A report suggesting the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, had been privately reassured that his region would be downgraded to tier 2 on 16 December, when allocations are first reviewed, was denied by him.

“I will make the argument for the whole of Greater Manchester [to be in tier 2] but it is not true that we have been tipped the wink,” he said.

default

On Sunday, the former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper, who chairs the CRG, renewed the group’s call for an impact analysis to be published, insisting it must be “hard evidence not hyperbole”.

He told the Guardian it was a “bit disappointing” they did not have the analysis already, explaining: “Given that these cabinet subcommittees made the decisions on Wednesday, you’d of kind of hoped that they’d have been looking at this information … to make their decisions. We need to see it and we need to see it tomorrow [Monday].”

Commenting on the new restrictions, he added: “It’s going to have a massive impact on businesses, potentially put many businesses under and put people out of work.

“They’re really big decisions and I think it’s quite reasonable that we require the same information put before us that ministers have had before we’re asked to vote on them.”

Harper said he could not put a figure on the number of potential rebels but added: “All I can say is we’ve got 70 colleagues who agreed to sign the letter to the prime minister asking for the information but, to some extent … what people finally decide to do is going to depend on the information that’s made available.”

Separately, Johnson will on Monday announce a £20m fund to help the UK respond to future pandemics by increasing “the capacity and resilience of our medicines and diagnostics manufacturing supply chains”.

On a visit to north Wales the prime minister will launch the government’s medicines and diagnostic manufacturing transformation fund.