Government accused of 'covert mission creep' and 'attempting to terrify Brits' in Covid-19 response

·6-min read
Prime Minister Boris Johnson: via REUTERS
Prime Minister Boris Johnson: via REUTERS

Conservative politicians have accused the Government of "covert mission creep" and trying to "terrify the British people" in its response to the surge in Covid-19 cases.

The Tory backlash to further restrictions emerged as the House of Commons embarked on a lengthy debate on the Covid-19 crisis on Monday.

MPs will vote on Wednesday on whether to renew the powers in the Coronavirus Act. It comes as Mr Johnson is under increasing pressure to give Parliament the opportunity to debate and vote on future restrictions.

Conservative backbencher Sir Christopher Chope said the Government was guilty of “covert mission creep” over its expansion of coronavirus regulations using secondary legislation.

He said: “I’m not yet persuaded that I need to support the continuation of the Coronavirus Act. And why am I not persuaded of that? Because the Government is guilty of covert mission creep.

“When we were told six months ago that it was necessary to rush legislation through it was on the basis that we wanted to prevent our NHS being overwhelmed with people dying from Covid in hospital corridors and not being able to access the care that they needed.

“Fortunately, as a result of the emergency measures that were taken, that scenario never arose, people were taken to hospital and they received the very best treatment in a hospital and continue so to do.

“So the original objective of this legislation has been achieved but as so often happens with regulation brought in by governments, they want to keep the regulations. They say ‘oh well we need to keep them just in case’."

Former minister Sir Desmond Swayne claimed it was a “sacking offence” for the Government’s chief scientific and medical advisers to deliver a presentation to warn how 200 or more people in the UK could die each day by mid-November if the current rate of infection was not halted.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Desmond earlier said: “The purpose of politicians is to impose a measure of proportion, a sense of proportion on science, and not to be enthralled to it.

“Now I will make myself very unpopular, but I believe that the appearance of the chiefs (chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance) last week should have been a sacking offence.

“When they presented that graph, with the caveat that it wasn’t a prediction, but nevertheless it was clear that they presented it as a plausible scenario, with its 50,000 cases per day by mid-October based on the doubling of infections by the week.

“Not once, not on one day since March have there been infections on that day that were double that of the day of the week proceeding. Not once. Where did this doubling come from? What was their purpose in presenting such a graph?

“It was the purpose of the Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers, ‘I wants to make yer flesh creep’. It was project fear, it was an attempt to terrify the British people, as if they haven’t been terrified enough.”

Sir Desmond said he believed the Government’s policy has been “disproportionate”, adding: “By decree, it has interfered in our private lives, and our family lives, telling us who we may meet, when we may meet them and what we must wear when we meet them.

“We have the cruelty, the cruelty, of elderly people in care homes, disorientated, being unable to see the faces of their loved ones and to receive a hug.”

Conservative former minister Simon Clarke insisted a return to national lockdown would be “untenable” and “wrong”, warning it would have a “stark and serious” toll on the country.

Lucy Allan, Conservative MP for Telford, said data published by the Government last week had “undermined public trust” by “pushing” a worst-case scenario without explaining the probability of it occurring.

Ms Allan asked: “Was it designed to instil fear in order to control the public? Is that how we want to govern?”

Greg Clark, Conservative chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said the restrictions imposed must be combined with the prospect of “relief” from them.

He said: “By the spring we must embark on a clearly different course. We can’t forever live in circumstances in which the way that we live our lives can be upended without notice.

A man wears a protective face mask as he walks past a shop window advertising a closing down sale in Nottingham city centre (PA)
A man wears a protective face mask as he walks past a shop window advertising a closing down sale in Nottingham city centre (PA)

“By the spring, many of the unknowns will switch to be known.”

Economic concerns were expressed by Conservative former cabinet minister Sir John Redwood, who suggested “public support” for sectors which are banned from operating by the Government in a bid to halt the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile Health Secretary Matt Hancock faced demands for a “rapid” review of the 10pm curfew, amid concerns over people “piling out of pubs” into busy streets and supermarkets.

Labour insisted all the evidence linked to the pub and restaurant curfew must be assessed, with the review published to Parliament within days.

But Mr Hancock mounted a defence of the policy and insisted it was introduced in England after working in other countries.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock making a ministerial statement to update the House of Commons (PRU/AFP via Getty Images)
Health Secretary Matt Hancock making a ministerial statement to update the House of Commons (PRU/AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Hancock told MPs the Government was “looking at further ways to ensure the House can be properly involved in the process in advance where possible”.

“I strongly agree with the need for us in this House to have the appropriate level of scrutiny,” he told MPs.

But he said the Government had to have the ability to act quickly where necessary.

Mr Hancock replied: “The question is how we can have the appropriate level of scrutiny whilst also making sure that we can move fast where that is necessary.”

MPs also demanded greater say on Government-imposed Covid-19 restrictions, with Mr Hancock agreeing to meet with a Tory MP leading a rebellion over Parliament’s ability to scrutinise Government-imposed coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock told the Commons he would meet Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential Tory backbench 1922 Committee, to discuss matters further and pledged to “try to find a way forward”

Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said Labour would be “extremely sympathetic” to proposals for better scrutiny of coronavirus restrictions, but added: “We won’t support attempts to scupper restrictions that are clearly in the public health interest.

“Our priority will always be saving lives, minimising harm and keeping our children in school.”

Mr Ashworth warned a second national lockdown would be “catastrophic for society".

He asked ministers to consider imposing different restrictions in cities subjected to controls for several months, such as Bradford and Leicester, if infections have not subsided, in order to allow families to visit each other.

Mr Ashworth went on: “We’ve seen this weekend pictures of people piling out of pubs at 10 o’clock on the dot into busy streets, public transport packed, supermarkets busy as people buy more drink, how does this help contain the spread of the virus?

“So I can I ask the Secretary of State to undertake a rapid and transparent review of all the evidence of the 10 o’clock and report back to Parliament this week.”

Additional reporting by PA Media.

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