Boris Johnson is braced for the biggest rebellion of his premiership after backbench Tory MPs poured scorn on his last-ditch attempt to win them over to his new regional tier system of Covid-19 restrictions.
Mr Johnson’s government on Monday published a cost-benefit analysis of the new measures in an attempt to persuade wavering Conservatives to back the proposals — but many remain unconvinced ahead of the parliamentary vote on Tuesday.
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory backbenchers, said the government had failed to provide information vindicating the government’s modelling on future Covid-19 deaths and hospital capacity.
“The government’s analysis seems to be collapsing under the glare of scrutiny,” he said. “We have asked repeatedly for the information that vindicates these hospital projections and they have not been forthcoming.”
The 48-page document detailed the health, economic and social consequences of the tiering system and outlined the “need for continued action”, adding that a “stable and fully functioning health system” was vital to support society and the economy.
It admitted that the measures would impose a higher economic cost than the central assumption published last week by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, which predicted a £30bn annual hole in the government’s finances by the middle of the decade.
But it said the alternative of allowing Covid-19 to grow exponentially would have a dire impact on public health.
With dozens of Tory MPs furious at the continued imposition of restrictions on people’s lives, the prime minister could have to rely on the opposition Labour party to avoid defeat.
Labour’s Keir Starmer said the party would abstain on the vote despite him having “serious misgivings” about the tier system, meaning that it is likely to pass in the House of Commons.
“Coronavirus remains a serious threat to the public’s health and that’s why Labour accept the need for continued restrictions,” he said on Monday. “We will always act in the national interest, so we will not vote against these restrictions in Parliament tomorrow.”
The Labour leader criticised the government’s handling of testing, public messaging and economic support, stating: “It is short-term government incompetence that is causing long-term damage to the British economy.
“I remain deeply concerned that Boris Johnson’s government has failed to use this latest lockdown to put a credible health and economic plan in place,” he added.
On Monday evening, the Times newspaper reported the existence of a leaked government dossier that outlined the impact of Covid within specific sectors of the economy such as hospitality and retail.
Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: “The government cannot keep information about the risks facing our economy and jobs secret.”
Robert Syms, MP for Poole, said MPs would be disappointed by Monday’s new document given it seemed a “rehash of stuff” that was already in the public domain. “If you impose restrictions for public health reasons and there is an economic cost, lost jobs, let’s have an honest debate about it,” he said.
Mel Stride, chair of the Treasury select committee, said the “rehashed document” offered very little in economic terms beyond last week’s OBR report.
“It’s frustrating that there is little here that sets out how the different tiers might impact on the specific sectors and regions across the country,” he said. “Those looking for additional economic analysis of the new tiered system will struggle to find it in this document.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock said the national lockdown in England had reduced the average number of infections each day from 25,331 in mid November, to 14,778.
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Speaking at a Downing Street press briefing, Mr Hancock said: “Through everyone’s actions in respecting the national lockdown and through everything that people have sacrificed, we have reduced pressures on the NHS . . . and got this virus back under control.”
However, he also warned against complacency as a further 205 Covid-related deaths were recorded on Monday.
Monday’s impact assessment admitted that the government had not modelled “the precise detail of specific restrictions” of the sort being introduced next week.
“It is not possible to precisely estimate the economic impacts of any specific restrictions, for individual areas,” the report said. A range of factors including the tiering position within neighbouring areas and the “vulnerability of the labour market” all contributed to the economic impact.
But the paper argued that there would be an economic downside to having few or no Covid-19 restrictions — for example, in higher levels of employee sickness.
The hospitality industry said it had not yet seen evidence to justify the new measures, despite the government’s publication of four studies late on Friday to back up the closure of pubs and restaurants as a means of slowing the virus’s spread.
“The evidence [they published] was extremely flimsy and weak,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, the trade body for the pub and restaurant industry.
The news came amid confusion over the rule that says people must buy a “substantial meal” if they are buying alcohol in a pub in a tier 2 area.
George Eustice, environment secretary, suggested that a scotch egg — a boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat — could qualify for the definition of a meal if it was provided by table service.
But Downing Street later clarified that this was not the case: “Bar snacks do not count as a substantial meal . . . It’s well-established in the hospitality industry what does.”
Earlier Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first secretary, announced the evening closure of all pubs, bars and restaurants in Wales from Friday.
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