Chancellor Rishi Sunak has defended the Government’s controversial 10pm coronavirus curfew for pubs and restaurants, warning the alternative was for them to close altogether.
Ministers are under pressure from Tory MPs to scrap the curfew in England, as well as easing the so-called “rule of six”, amid claims such intrusive measures are not justified by the evidence and damage the economy.
The Government is braced for a potential backbench rebellion when the Commons comes to vote on Tuesday on continuing the rule of six which bans social gatherings of more than six people.
However, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Labour will back the Government on the rule of six vote.
He told the media: “We will support on the rule of six.
“There are, of course, arguments about whether it should be six or a different number, I think clarity and simplicity is really important here and therefore we will support the rule of six tonight.”
A further vote had been expected on the 10pm curfew, and rebels are urging ministers to make concessions.
Health minister Lord Bethell added to the temperature of the political debate by saying families had been “extremely lax” over the summer in abiding by Covid-19 regulations.
And that behaviour led to the introduction of the so-called rule of six, he said.
Lord Bethell defended the introduction of the measures and said parents were using children’s birthday parties to “flout the rules and create events where infections were happening”.
Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling contributed to the decision to order the original lockdown in March, has warned that further measures could be needed to curb the current upsurge in infections.
In a clear message to would-be Tory rebels, Mr Sunak indicated the alternative to the existing restrictions would be even tighter controls.
“The curfew was something we were told by our advisers could well make a difference to the spread of the transmission,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“In common with many other countries around the world this is thought to be something that can help suppress the spread of the virus.
“We are not an outlier in having a curfew.
“As a tool we have at our disposal to try and suppress the spread of the virus, it is one that is advised across the board can make a difference.
“What I would say is it is better than having places closed.”
Mr Sunak is widely thought to have argued against tighter restrictions when the latest measures were introduced, warning of the damage to the economy at a time when thousands of jobs are being lost.
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, he did nothing to dispel the impression, saying it would have been “odd” if, as Chancellor, he had not spoken out in Government about the impact on the economy.
“A Cabinet is not a collection of robots.
“A Cabinet is a collection of people who are going to come, debate the issues,” he said.
“These are really difficult judgments.
“There is no precise way to come to a mathematically correct answer.”
Leading Tory rebels said that, while they did not expect to defeat the Government, they hoped to persuade ministers to give some ground.
Steve Baker, who has organised a meeting with like-minded Tory MPs to discuss tactics, said there was a consensus among them that children should be excluded from the rule of six and that the curfew was not justified by the evidence.
“I wouldn’t expect to win a vote on either issue.
“The reality is we need to persuade the Government on all these matters,” he told the PA news agency.
“With Labour and the SNP missing in action we won’t be defeating the Government in any rebellions.
“The reality is now that we are into a long hard business of negotiating with the Government, trying to keep the Conservative Party together and trying to persuade the Government to have restrictions which don’t do more harm than good.”