Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday appealed to rebellious members of his own party as parliament prepared to vote on tough new Covid restrictions to replace an England-wide lockdown.
The month-long stay-at-home order ends at midnight (0000 GMT) and the Conservative government plans to restore regionalised restrictions, depending on coronavirus rates in different parts of the country.
While London will escape the tightest “Tier 3” rules, more than 23 million people will fall into the category, including in some affluent Conservative-held constituencies, forcing hospitality and leisure facilities to remain closed.
Johnson said the onset of vaccines and mass testing would “allow us to reclaim our lives” but until then, “we cannot afford to relax, especially during the cold months of winter”.
“All we need to do now is to hold our nerve until these vaccines are indeed in our grasp and being injected into our arms,” he told the House of Commons before the vote on the new tiers later Tuesday.
Senior minister Michael Gove said “we are all too grimly aware” of the impact on struggling businesses, as the collapse of two retail groups threw the future of 25,000 jobs into doubt.
But interviewed on BBC radio, he stressed: “What would the effect be on the economy if the NHS (National Health Service) was overwhelmed?”
Isolated hotspots mean entire counties are due to enter Tier 3, despite their infection rates remaining below the English average.
That has prompted outrage from dozens of Conservative MPs, who are threatening to vote against the plan.
Johnson, however, said future changes would make the tiered restrictions more “granular” and that they will be subject to reviews every two weeks from mid-December.
He also announced new cash support for pubs forced to close unless they can offer a “substantial meal”, although government ministers have given differing interpretations of whether that includes snacks such as scotch eggs.
Gove pointed to the experience of the devolved government in Wales, which he said is having to “slam the brakes on again” with fresh curbs on hospitality venues after a two-week lockdown last month.
Britain has been Europe’s worst-hit country during the pandemic, recording more than 58,000 deaths from some 1.6 million cases.
– Dodgy dossier? –
The UK government, which sets health policy for England, late Monday released a wider assessment to accompany the parliamentary debate, after MPs demanded more clarity on the effects for the recession-hit economy of the latest restrictions.
Angering the rebels, the dossier said it was impossible to state with confidence what would be the economic impact of lifting the controls.
“However, the alternative of allowing Covid-19 to grow exponentially is much worse for public health,” it said.
“The government’s view is that the severe loss of life and other health impacts of allowing the NHS to be overwhelmed would be intolerable for our society.”
Tory MP Mark Harper, one of the rebel ringleaders, said the government’s assessment “seems to be collapsing under the glare of scrutiny”.
He said the government had repeatedly failed to detail the kind of projections outlined anew by Gove, showing mounting pressure on state-run hospitals.
“We are now seeing that, once again, the wheels are coming off the government’s arguments,” Harper tweeted.
Johnson has an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, and the main opposition Labour party says it will abstain in the vote, refusing for the first time in the pandemic to support the prime minister’s response.
Labour is demanding more help for businesses and for low-paid workers forced to self-isolate. Its abstention should allow the new curbs to pass.
But a sizeable Tory revolt will embarrass Johnson and could foreshadow other parliamentary battles to come, including over the terms of Britain’s Brexit divorce from the European Union.