Backbench Tories up in arms over tougher tiers

Christopher Hope
·5-min read

Boris Johnson's plans for a new toughened three-tiered system to replace the national lockdown next week is under threat after 70 Conservative MPs threatened to veto the plans in Parliament.

The Tory MPs on Saturday wrote to the Prime Minister saying they could not support further new restrictions if the Government does not publish an economic analysis of the impact of the restrictions.

Mr Johnson will tell the House of Commons on Monday that he will end the lockdown in England next week and replace it with three new toughened-up tiers which will vary depending on the prevalence of the virus locally.

More people could still be subject to lockdown-style restrictions with Number 10 warning that "more areas will be placed into the higher tiers in order to keep the virus under control".

The number of signatories to the letter is more than enough than the 43 Tory MPs to defeat the Government's 85-strong working majority in the Commons if Labour votes against the plans when they are put to MPs next week.

So far Labour has voted for all of the coronavirus restrictions, however.

Referring to the previous tiered system of restrictions, which were not as onerous as the ones set to be proposed this week, the Conservative MPs told Mr Johnson: "The tiered restrictions approach in principle attempts to link virus prevalence with measures to tackle it, but it’s vital we remember always that even the tiered system of restrictions infringes deeply upon people’s lives with huge health and economic costs."

"Even 'tier one' only allows groups of up to six people to meet indoors. We cannot support this approach further unless the Government demonstrates the restrictions proposed for after Dec 2 will have an impact on slowing the transmission of Covid, and will save more lives than they cost."

The current system is explained, below.

The MPs, all members of the new anti-lockdown Covid Recovery group, which is run by former Government chief whip Mark Harper and former Brexit minister Steve Baker, said that they cannot support more restrictions unless ministers set out the economic and health costs of limiting people's movements even further.

They added: "To this end, Government must publish a full cost-benefit analysis of the proposed restrictions on a regional basis so that MPs can assess responsibly the non-Covid health impact of restrictions, as well as the undoubted impact on livelihoods."

The MPs added: "Our country instead needs a different and enduring strategy for living with the virus that can last beyond Christmas. Restrictions should be removed immediately if it cannot be shown that they are saving more lives than they cost."

They warned: "The lockdown cure prescribed runs the very real risk of being worse than the disease.

"We are especially concerned about outside sport, the 10pm curfew, closure of non-essential retail, gyms and personal care businesses, restrictions on worship, care home visits, hospitality and the inclusion of children under 12 in the “Rule of 6”.

"In these areas, we need to be assured of the evidence of their effectiveness, whether a mandatory approach produces better outcomes than a voluntary one, whether a blanket approach produces better outcomes than a targeted one, whether adherence will be sustainable and crucially, that transparent assessment shows they do more good than harm.

"Where harms are certain but benefits uncertain – such as closing schools – an intervention should not be used. The burden is on the Government to demonstrate the necessity and proportionality of each restriction."

They added: "Our country instead needs a different and enduring strategy for living with the virus that can last beyond Christmas. Restrictions should be removed immediately if it cannot be shown that they are saving more lives than they cost."

Conservative MPs are growing increasingly alarmed at the way ministers are portraying powers handed to them by Parliament to control the spread of the pandemic.

This week, Kit Malthouse, a Home Office minister, told MPs that "any larger gatherings, save for very limited exemptions such as funerals, are unlawful"

Sir Charles Walker, the vice chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs who had asked the minister whether "all protests attended by more than two people [are now] illegal" to the English national lockdown, described the minister's response as "Orwellian".

Big Brother Watch, the campaign group, said the law permits gatherings organised by "a political body” in a “public outdoor place” if the organiser has carried out a risk assessment.

Earlier this month Tory MP Richard Drax, a lockdown critic, said that the fear of being branded "a murderer" if deaths continued to rise had forced Mr Johnson into ordering the second national lockdown in England.

He told Chopper's Politics Podcast: "I suspect the fear of being accused, in the worst case, of being a murderer, which some people may aim at him if deaths continue to rise, is both for him morally and politically a very devastating accusation to make.

"This is where I think common sense is desperately needed - to look at the balance between shutting the country down and trying to save a few people, a few more people."

A Number 10 spokesman said: “We understand that colleagues have concerns and we will continue to engage with them to address the issues.

“The Prime Minister has been clear that we are committed to minimising damage to our economy, lives and livelihoods.

“In the coming week, the Prime Minister will set out how advances in vaccinations, treatments and mass testing will help enable life to gradually return to normal but the virus is still present and without regional restrictions we risk putting in jeopardy the progress the country has made over the past few weeks.”