MPs told rural areas with low infection rates could be ‘decoupled’ from cities that have dragged them into strict restrictions.
[“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” – to quote Sir Walter Scott]
By Danielle Sheridan, Political Correspondent www.telegraph.co.uk
MPs have been told that rural areas with low infection rates could be “decoupled” from cities that have “unfairly” dragged them into Tiers 2 and 3 under the Government’s regional approach.
It comes amid a major rift between ministers and scientific advisers, who say areas of England are more likely to go up a tier than down one.
Government scientists have said they expect few changes within the system in coming months, with Tier 2 areas more likely to go up than down and almost nowhere likely to move to Tier 1 until March. They are understood to have told Boris Johnson that he should consider moving Tier 2 areas to Tier 3.
The draconian advice comes despite new figures showing the reproduction ‘R’ rate of the virus to have come down to between 0.9 and 1.0 – its lowest level since August – meaning that Covid may already be in retreat.
Up to 100 Tory MPs are threatening the biggest rebellion of Mr Johnson’s premiership when the new tier system is put to a vote next week amid anger over a broad brush approach that has put low incidence areas into higher tiers because they are in the same county as a city with a high infection rate.
Government ministers Nadhim Zahawi and Jesse Norman are among those to have publicly criticised the new tiers.
Labour has yet to decide whether it will vote for the tier system, meaning Mr Johnson could face defeat unless he can persuade enough of his own MPs to back down. The Prime Minister said on Friday that he understood the “frustration” of people who have ended up in tier two or three despite low infection rates in their town or village.
According to reports, the Prime Minister has pencilled in Easter Monday as the day when the strict Covid tiers will be lifted.
Ministers and officials are trying to win round Tory MPs by offering them hope that their constituencies will be “decoupled” from hotspots when a review of the tiers is carried out in mid-December. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, is among ministers understood to have discussed the idea with backbenchers, with other ministers and officials also having private talks with MPs.
Seven Tory MPs in Kent are among those in discussions with the Government over “decoupling” low-incidence rural areas from hotspots in the county, which is in Tier 3 along with 41 per cent of England’s population.
Tom Tugendhat, the MP for Tonbridge and Malling, said: “Many of us are talking to his [Mr Hancock’s] team at the moment – we are seeing where we are going to get. I’d like the Government to come to the right conclusion. It’s an error.”
Many MPs have pointed out that both Slough, in Berkshire, and Scarborough, in North Yorkshire, have already been “decoupled” from their regions by being put into different tiers.
Former Cabinet minister Liam Fox, the MP for North Somerset, said: “Why should we be punished for Bristol not being able to get its numbers under control? We weren’t the ones having raves and protests. We are being victimised because of the city authorities’ failure to get this under control. It appears to lack consistency and logic.
“I’ve made my feelings known within the party and expect these things will be reviewed before the vote on Tuesday. There have been hints by ministers that there will be decoupling.”
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, said: “The tiers have been applied in an unjust and unfair way, putting whole counties into lockdown when significant areas have very low levels of infection.”
Andrew Bridgen, whose North West Leicestershire constituency has been put into Tier 3 because of high rates in Leicester, said: “A lot of us were in lower tiers and now we are in higher tiers. If there is any hope of salvation, we’ve got to be decoupled from Leicester.
“Our figures are dropping. It’s all about hope – and if we are linked with Leicester, then we have no hope.”
Business minister Mr Zahawi said he had spoken to Mr Hancock and “made clear to him the very strong feelings” among his constituents in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is in Tier 3 because infection rates in Coventry and Solihull have “counted against us”.
He said he was “pushing for” Warwickshire to be “reconsidered alone” so it can drop to Tier 2.
Mr Johnson said: “I know it is frustrating for people when they are in a high-tier area when there is very little incidence in their village or their area. I totally understand why people feel frustrated.
“The difficulty is that if you did it any other way, first of all you’d divide the country up into loads and loads of very complicated sub-divisions – there has got to be some simplicity and clarity in the way we do this. The second problem is that, alas, our experience is that when a high-incidence area is quite close to a low-incidence area, unless you beat the problem in the high-incidence area then the low-incidence area, I’m afraid, starts to catch up.”
Downing Street has insisted it is possible that some of the 99 per cent of the country in tiers two and three could drop down to lower tiers when a review based on the newest data is announced on December 17.
However, it emerged on Friday that while Mr Johnson faces a fight for the support of his own MPs for the tier system, he also faces a battle with his scientific advisers, who believe the restrictions should be toughened rather than relaxed.
One senior Government scientist said he was “not expecting big changes to the tiers in the next few months”, adding that he “would be surprised if we saw large numbers of areas get down to Tier 1” before spring heralds the rollout of a vaccine.
The adviser said he anticipated that some areas would rise from Tier 2 to Tier 3 after Christmas, while it was possible some areas could drop from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in time.
He added that “from now … into February is going to be the most difficult”, anticipating heavier pressures on the NHS after Christmas when rises in respiratory viruses and flu are typically seen, saying: “All those things conspire against being able to relax tiers.”
The same source called into question Mr Johnson’s reliance on mass testing to get areas out of Tier 3. The Prime Minister has cited the use of it in Liverpool as the reason it became the first part of the country to leave the highest tier, and Number 10 has said hundreds of millions of tests will soon be available.
But the source said it would be “optimistic” to think that mass testing could reduce an epidemic by 15 to 20 per cent and that repeated testing in high-risk groups was likely to be more effective than offering it to the whole population less frequently.
On Friday night, Michael Gove defended the tier system in The Times, describing it as “grimly, inevitably necessary” to prevent the NHS from being unable to treat emergency patients.
Separately, newly-released minutes of a Sage meeting on November 19 show that scientific advisers believe the relaxation of rules on household mixing over the festive period will result in increased prevalence in a similar way to students returning to university in September.