Boris Johnson pleaded with mutinous Tories to back the ‘compelling’ case for his new tiers today amid claims of back-room deals and promises.
The PM struck a compromise tone as he opened the debate ahead of a crunch vote this evening, with up to 100 thought to be ready to rebel.
In a key signal, he insisted that the government will be ‘sensitive’ to local situations – hinting that areas with low infection rates will not be lumped together in future with other nearby hotspots. He said the next review on December 16 will be conducted based on ‘as much granular detail as we can’. ‘We will try to be a sensitive as possible to local effort and local achievement,’ he said.
He also announced that ‘wet’ pubs – which rely on drinks to make their living – will be entitled to £1,000 payments to help them get through this month.
But Mr Johnson faced a series of hostile interventions from his own benches over the draconian restrictions, which will leave 99 per cent of England under the toughest two levels from tomorrow. And Sir Keir Starmer warned MPs their hopes of being downgraded will be dashed, as Tier 2 will ‘struggle’ to hold infections down and Mr Johnson always ‘overpromises and under-delivers’.
The premier has been left exposed after Sir Keir announced that Labour will abstain on the vote tonight – a decision Mr Johnson described in the House as ‘extraordinary’. It means the scale of the rebellion will not be masked by Opposition support, although the government is still guaranteed victory as not enough will switch sides to overturn Mr Johnson’s huge majority.
Many Tories were left livid when ministers finally released an impact assessment of the measures, only to find it did not feature any new detail. Rebel ringleader Mark Harper said the ‘wheels were coming off’ the policy.
It is understood the government has another dashboard that includes more ‘granular’ information on 40 areas of the economy. Sources dismissed the idea it is ‘secret’, saying it only contains material already ‘publicly available’ – although they insisted it will not be published. One angry MP told MailOnline: ‘The reason it won’t be published is because it supports our case not theirs.’
MP say whips have been assuring Conservatives with constituencies in high tiers that they will be downgraded within weeks, while London Tories are pushing for a pledge that the city will not be upgraded to Tier 3.
Laying out his case that there is a ‘compelling’ need for the new regional tiers, Mr Johnson stressed: ‘This is not another lockdown. Nor is this the renewal of existing measures in England.
‘The tiers that I’m proposing would mean that from tomorrow everyone in England, including those in Tier 3, will be free to leave their homes for any reason.
‘And when they do they will find the shops open for Christmas, the hairdressers open, the nail bars open, gyms, leisure centres, swimming pools open.’
On the hospitality sector, Mr Johnson reeled off a list of support already announced, before telling MPs: ‘Today we’re going further, with a one-off payment of £1,000 in December to wet pubs – that’s pubs that do not serve food.
‘Recognising how hard they’ve been hit by this virus in what is typically their busiest month.’
In other coronavirus news:
- Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has said two scotch eggs would be ‘a starter’, 24 hours after Environment Secretary George Eustice said one is a substantial meal for the purposes of buying alcohol in pubs in Tier 2. But Mr Gove added to the confusion by saying later it could also count as a main meal;
- Sir Keir Starmer was accused of ‘playing politics’ in the middle of the pandemic after he ordered his MPs to sit out the crucial vote tonight on the rules that will replace lockdown;
- Mr Gove has denied that Britons will need ‘immunity certificates’ to go to the pub – despite a fellow minister raising the prospect yesterday;
- Mr Gove pointed to Wales as an example of how lockdown should not be done, after it announced pubs will be forced to close at 6pm and banned from selling alcohol drinks from Friday as the country faces new curbs just weeks after the ‘firebreak’ ended;
- The UK recorded just 12,330 coronavirus infections yesterday in the lowest Monday toll since September.
Boris Johnson said there was a ‘compelling case’ for the regional tiers as he faced a Commons showdown over his new coronavirus rules
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove (left) was sent out on the airwaves to defend the government’s position, warning that the renewed lockdown in Wales, just weeks after their ‘firebreak’ curbs, showed ‘what happens when you pulkl the restraints back too far’. Sir Keir Starmer (right) has decided to abstain in the crunch vote today
Whips are trying to talk round 100 Conservatives on the verge of joining the mutiny, with fury that just 1 per cent of England is being been in the lowest level of restrictions, even though many areas in Tier 3 have seen few or no infections
Challenged by a series of MPs – including ex-Cabinet minister Greg Clark, who represents Tunbridge Wells – over the harsh treatment their areas were receiving, Mr Johnson said: ‘As we go forward… the Government will look at how we can reflect as closely as possible the reality of what is happening on the ground for local people, looking at the incidence of the disease, looking at the human geography and spread of the pandemic, and indeed the progress that areas are making in getting the virus down.
‘We will try to be as sensitive as possible to local effort and to local achievement in bringing the pandemic under control.’
He added: ‘We will look in granular detail at local incidents, look at the human geography of the pandemic and take account of exactly what is happening every two weeks, as I say.’
Lockdown sceptic Tories met earlier to discuss their stance for the vote.
One senior backbencher said they were holding out for the best offer before deciding which way to vote. ‘There will be conversations going on,’ they said, explaining their approach. ‘You don’t commit one way or the other. As soon as you commit they stop talking to you.’
Others accused government whips of desperately trying to inflate expectations of the size of the rebellion so that it seemed less dramatic. Around 30 MPs defied the whip in the last lockdown vote. ‘The only people saying over 100 is government whips,’ an MP said. ‘If there is more than 50 the government has not done well.’
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove was sent out on the airwaves to defend the government’s position, warning that the renewed lockdown in Wales, just weeks after their ‘firebreak’ curbs, showed ‘what happens when you pull the restraints back too far’.
Mr Gove said he was ‘confident as confident can be’ that there will not need to be a third national lockdown in England.
But he risked fuelling the backlash by jibing that people would not be out ‘Christmas shopping’ if the NHS was overwhelmed because the government did not take strong action.
Mr Gove, regarded as one of the leading ‘Doves’ in Cabinet, also acknowledged he had wanted to plunge London straight into Tier 3. He was overruled by Mr Johnson amid fears 500,000 jobs could be lost.
‘It is always easier to move an area from a tougher tier to a lower tier,’ he told Sky News.
On the extra dossier of economic details, Mr Gove said: ‘The evidence that I understand is in that dashboard is broadly from the ONS and other publicly available statistical databases, and also reports from business representative organisations … (it) is based on information which is publicly available.’
Mr Gove stopped short of completely ruling out another blanket lockdown, but said the new tiers should be enough to avoid one.
He told Sky News: ‘I am as confident as confident can be that we won’t need one because the tiers that we have now are pretty robust.’
Asked if he could rule out another lockdown, Mr Gove said: ‘You can never rule anything out in politics, but, as I say, I’m pretty confident on the basis of the rigour with which these new tiers are applying that we can prevent a national lockdown.
‘One thing I fear though would be that if we were to relax the situation too rapidly then we would have the situation which we have had in some other countries, and, indeed, in Wales, where you have to slam the brakes on again.’
Mr Gove said he ‘sympathised’ with the concerns of Tory rebels, admitting that the restrictions were ‘painful’.
‘There are some, and I sympathise with them, who say that the current tiering system is too strict, too rigorous,’ he said.
‘I don’t think so, I think that it’s necessary to keep the infection rate down, to reduce it wherever possible, precisely so people can be together at Christmas.
‘It’s a balance and it’s not an easy one, but while these restrictions on our freedoms are painful, they go against the grain for me, they’re there to try and make sure that we don’t have our NHS overwhelmed.’
Mr Gove said Wales showed what the risks were when you lifted restrictions ‘too expansively’.
Wales is bringing in fresh national restrictions, including a ban on pubs selling alcohol and a 6pm curfew, from Friday night after a steady rise in infection rates since a 17-day ‘firebreak’ ended on November 9.
The Cabinet Office Minister told BBC Breakfast: ‘I’ve got enormous sympathy with the difficulties that the Welsh Government are wrestling with.
‘But it looks, with the benefit of hindsight, as though immediately after their two-week lockdown they lifted restrictions too expansively.
‘As a result of doing that the virus once more got out of control, so they’ve had to slam the brakes on again.
‘That’s one of the reasons why we’re exiting the lockdown cautiously (in England).’
He added: ‘The example of Wales shows what can happen if you lift the restrictions in too blanket a way too soon.’
Sir Keir, who has backed government measures throughout the pandemic, said it would not be in the national interest to vote the restrictions down when coronavirus still posed a ‘serious risk’ to the public.
But his party’s decision not to actively support the Government has left Mr Johnson exposed to his own MPs, with little sign last night that No10’s dossier on the social and economic consequences of the tier system had quelled a rebellion which could see up to 100 Conservatives vote against the measures.
Scores of Tories have furiously branded Downing Street’s 48-page document a whitewash and a ‘cut and paste’ job after it insisted that it could not measure how the three-tier system will effect the economies of local areas.
The final dossier was based on information in the public domain, with the section on the economic impact drawn from an analysis of the impact of the pandemic published by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) last week.
The government’s economic assessment last night included charts from last week’s OBR report – but no new detailed analysis of the economic outlook
MPs told MailOnline whips were assuring Conservatives with constituencies in high tiers that they will be downgraded at the first review on December 16. PIctured, chief whip Mark Spencer on his way to Cabinet this morning
Senior Tories blasted the ‘rushed’ document, which contained typographical errors – with one claiming that the PM had chosen not to publish an economic forecast ‘because it would have come up with the wrong answer’.
Mel Stride, Tory chairman of the Commons Treasury committee, said: ‘It’s frustrating that there is little here that sets out how the different tiers might impact on the specific sectors and regions across the country. Those looking for additional economic analysis of the new tiered system will struggle to find it in this document.’
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, last night confirmed he would vote against the Government’s plans.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith accused ministers of a ‘cut and paste job’, which suggested no economic analysis had been done before the allocation of tiers was made.
Mr Harper, who heads the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, questioned the figures on the threat to the NHS in the document.
‘We have asked repeatedly for the information that supports these hospital projections and they have not been forthcoming,’ he tweeted.
‘We are now seeing that, once again, the wheels are coming off the Government’s arguments.’
At a No 10 news conference yesterday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he hoped some areas could be moved into lower tiers when the restrictions come up for their first fortnightly review on December 16. But government scientists have made clear they see little scope for any widespread easing before Christmas.
It could mean most areas of England will go into the new year in one of the toughest two tiers with a ban on households mixing indoors and strict controls on the hospitality sector. Only the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly have been designated for the lightest Tier 1 restrictions.
Explaining his decision to order Labour to abstain in today’s Commons vote, Sir Keir said: ‘Coronavirus remains a serious threat to the public’s health and that’s why Labour accept the need for continued restrictions. We will always act in the national interest, so we will not vote against these restrictions in Parliament tomorrow.
‘However, I remain deeply concerned that Boris Johnson’s Government has failed to use this latest lockdown to put a credible health and economic plan in place.
‘We still don’t have a functioning testing system, public health messaging is confused, and businesses across the country are crying out for more effective economic support to get them through the winter months.
‘It is short-term Government incompetence that is causing long-term damage to the British economy. It is imperative that the Government gets control of the virus so that our NHS can be protected and our economy recovers faster.’
In response, the Government accused Sir Keir of ‘playing politics’ in the midst of the pandemic. ‘This pandemic is one of the biggest challenges facing the country in decades and Labour have decided to abstain on it,’ a No10 spokesman said.
‘While Keir Starmer claims he offers new leadership, it’s clear to all that he actually offers no leadership at all.
‘Keir Starmer is playing politics in the middle of a global pandemic instead of working with the Government to find a way through this difficult time for the British people.’
Whips are trying to talk round 100 Conservatives on the verge of joining the mutiny, with fury that just 1 per cent of England is being put in the lowest level of restrictions from Wednesday, with many areas in Tier 3 even though they have seen few or no infections. Concessions such as a February renewal date and more money for pubs and restaurants have already been offered.
But calls for a rethink have been reinforced by more evidence that the UK’s outbreak is shrinking fast, with just 12,330 Covid-19 infections recorded in the lowest Monday toll since September.
On a visit to pharmaceutical firm Wockhardt at their facility in North Wales, Mr Johnson said England’s lockdown had got the disease under control with the R number – a measure of how quickly the virus is spreading – below 1.
He said: ‘We can’t afford to take our foot off the throat of the beast, to take our foot off the gas, we can’t afford to let it out of control again.
‘The tiering system is tough, but it’s designed to be tough and to keep it under control. I know that lots of people think that they are in the wrong tier and I understand people’s frustration.
‘I particularly understand the frustration of the hospitality sector that has borne so much and been through so much in the last few months, and we will do everything we can, as we have been doing, to protect and to encourage that sector throughout the weeks and months ahead.’
But Mel Stride, the Tory chairman of the Treasury Committee, criticised the documents.
‘On a number of occasions, I’ve requested from the Chancellor and Treasury officials that they publish an analysis of the economic impacts of the three tiers,’ he said.
‘With little over 24 hours until MPs vote on the new tiered system, this rehashed document offers very little further in economic terms other than that which the OBR published last week. It’s frustrating that there is little here that sets out how the different tiers might impact on the specific sectors and regions across the country.
‘Those looking for additional economic analysis of the new tiered system will struggle to find it in this document.’
Matt Hancock told a Downing Street briefing that he hoped MPs from ‘all parties’ will back the proposals. The Health Secretary also said it is possible that some parts of the country could be downgraded to a lower tier at the first review of the measures on December 16.
He said: ‘Of course you’ve got to take into account that Christmas is coming up, but, nevertheless, with the case rates coming down as they are – coming down by almost third in the last week – then we will be absolutely looking at each area and seeing what is the right tier for that area.’
It comes as MailOnline analysis of official data showed only four NHS trusts in England are busier now than they were this time last year – despite warnings the health service would be crippled by coronavirus without the revamped three-tier lockdown system.
Michael Gove sparked fury over the weekend when he claimed that every hospital in England would be ‘physically overwhelmed’ by Covid-19 without the Government’s new restrictions, as he tried to persuade MPs and the public to support the brutal curbs.
But NHS England figures paint an entirely different picture, with thousands more hospital beds spare this year than last winter.
On average, 77,942 out of 88,903 (87.7 per cent) available beds were occupied across the country in the week ending November 22, which is the most recent snapshot. This figure does not take into account make-shift capacity at mothballed Nightingales, or the thousands of beds commandeered from the private sector.
For comparison, occupancy stood at 94.9 per cent, on average, during the seven-day spell that ended December 8 in 2019 – which is the most comparable data available for last winter – when around 91,733 out of all 96,675 available beds were full.
Britain today recorded just 12,330 Covid-19 infections in the lowest Monday toll since September, as Boris Johnson faces a growing rebellion over No10 ‘s draconian new tier system amid mounting evidence that the second wave is retreating
On average, 77,942 out of 88,903 (87.7 per cent) available beds were occupied across the country in the week ending November 22, which is the most recent snapshot. For comparison, occupancy stood at 94.9 per cent, on average, during the seven-day spell that ended December 8 in 2019 — which is the most comparable data available for last winter — when around 91,733 out of all 96,675 available beds were full
Just four trusts — Cambridge University Hospitals Foundation Trust (FT), University College London Hospitals FT, Calderdale and Huddersfield FT, and Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh FT — are busier now than they were a year ago
Of the trusts that are the busiest this year, only Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh is seeing more patients in total than last winter
It’s true that nearly a third of English hospitals are seeing more Covid patients now than at the peak of the crisis in April. But on the whole, there are still 4,000 fewer people with the disease in English hospitals compared to mid-April
Prime Minister gestures as he speaks during virtual press conference at Downing Street
Just four trusts – Cambridge University Hospitals Foundation Trust (FT), University College London Hospitals FT, Calderdale and Huddersfield FT, and Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh FT – are busier now than they were a year ago.
In Cambridge, 769 of 823 beds were full (93.4 per cent) on average in the week ending November 22, compared to 883 out of 956 (92.5 per cent) last winter.
Calderdale and Huddersfield was at 93.3 per cent capacity last week, with 499 out of 535 beds filled, slightly higher than the 92 per cent last December, when 596 of 648 beds were in use.
Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust is almost at full capacity, with 98.7 per cent of its 335 beds occupied. But that figure is still only marginally higher than the 96 per cent from last year.
While University College London was 89.2 per cent full last December compared to 93 per cent last week.
Dr Karol Sikora, a consultant oncologist and professor of medicine at the University of Buckingham, said Downing Street was running a ‘brainwashing PR campaign’ with ‘data that doesn’t stack up’.
He told MailOnline: ‘We’ve gone back to how it started in March, with [the Government] claiming we need the measures to protect the NHS. The data you’ve shown me proves that it doesn’t need protecting. It’s dealing with Covid very well indeed.
‘What the data shows is that hospitals are not working at full capacity and they’ve still got some spare beds for Covid if necessary. The public is being misled, the data doesn’t stack up. Fear and scaremongering is being used to keep people out of hospital.’