Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned Conservative MPs threatening to rebel against new coronavirus restrictions that backing them is key in avoiding a third national lockdown.
His plea came as Boris Johnson said on Monday it would be wrong to “take our foot off the throat of the beast” now, with up to 100 Tories unhappy about the tiered approach for England.
The Prime Minister acknowledged that “lots of people think that they are in the wrong tier” but insisted the measures set to come into force on Wednesday are needed to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Labour said it would abstain in Tuesday’s Commons vote as it would not be in the national interest to vote down the measures at a time when the virus continued to represent a “significant risk”.
The latest warnings came as the Government acknowledged in its impact assessment that the new controls will have a “significant” impact on the economy but said that allowing the disease to run unchecked would be “much worse” for public health.
A failure to maintain strong controls would lead to the NHS being overwhelmed and result in an “intolerable” loss of life, the analysis published ahead of a crunch Commons vote on the restrictions on Tuesday added.
Mr Hancock said that “we’ve got this virus back under control” thanks to the lockdown but that “while we can let up a little, we can’t afford to let up a lot”.
And the Cabinet minister directly appealed to Tory backbenchers who may oppose the restrictions that will see 99% of England facing major restrictions on hospitality and mixing with other households.
Asked during a Downing Street press conference if Conservatives thinking of rebelling are acting irresponsibly, he said: “I would urge all MPs right across the House to vote for the tiered system.
“The tiered system has a lower set of restrictions than the national lockdown in all three tiers.
“Unfortunately though, we do have to have the higher tier restrictions – and in particular Tier 3 restrictions – in place so that we can have confidence that we can keep getting this virus down, and then keep it under control right across the country.
“And that way, it is the best way to avoid a third lockdown. And it is the most proportionate way to take the action that we need to keep people safe, and to stop the NHS being overwhelmed.”
Sir Keir Starmer said Labour still had “serious misgivings” about the Government’s plans but he accepted that some restrictions were still needed.
“We will not be voting them down tomorrow. That would not be in the national interest . I think to vote down this scheme would be irresponsible,” he said.
“We will abstain tomorrow and that will mean that the regulations go through.”
Earlier in the day, Mr Johnson insisted the tiers are needed while “the scientific cavalry really are almost here”, as he said a jab could be available “in a few weeks”.
“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,” he told reporters during a visit to a facility of pharmaceutical firm Wockhardt in Wales, where it is hoped a vaccine will be produced
“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.”
Meanwhile, the Government’s impact assessment acknowledged the “knock-on implications” of restrictions on other health services, mental health and physical wellbeing as well as the economic impact.
The document pointed to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast of an 11.3% slump in gross domestic product (GDP) – a key measure of the economy’s size and health.
But it said the alternative of allowing Covid-19 to grow exponentially “is much worse for public health” and stressed the importance of keeping the R number – the reproduction rate of the virus – below 1.
“At the outset of the most difficult time of year for the NHS, and with hospital admissions already high, a sustained period with R above 1 would result in hospitals rapidly becoming overwhelmed,” it warned.
“This could lead to many more Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 deaths that would have been preventable were the NHS to remain within its bed capacity.”
Conservative former chief whip Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs who are sceptical of further restrictions, said they would “read and analyse” the data overnight.
But he added: “I am disappointed MPs, journalists and the public have been given so little time to digest information of this magnitude.”
Despite being offered another chance to vote on the restrictions early next year – meaning the measures could lapse on February 3 – numerous MPs said they still have reservations.
The Prime Minister’s argument for stringent restrictions will be boosted by new figures suggesting coronavirus infections fell by almost a third in England during the second national lockdown.
There was a 30% drop in cases across the country over almost a fortnight this month, the latest interim findings from Imperial College London’s React study showed.
– The Government said a further 205 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Monday, bringing the UK total to 58,448. There were a further 12,330 lab-confirmed cases.
– Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford announced that pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes will be forced to stop selling alcohol and to shut by 6pm in a new round of coronavirus restrictions that begin on Friday night.
– The Prime Minister announced a £20 million boost for medicine manufacturing in the UK in a bid to strengthen the country’s response to future pandemics.
– The Telegraph said pubs and restaurants hit by the new restrictions will be given extra financial support to help them get through to Christmas.
– Shops will be able to open around the clock in England in December and January to help recoup some of the losses made during lockdown.