‘Support us on curbs or Covid will swamp NHS – Covid-19 is no respecter of boundaries ’

Just in case you were getting a little confused by the mixed messages coming from a government with an 80 seat majority, Michael Gove spells out the “official/agreed/orthodox/canonical/doctrinal/holy writ” line, or possibly not. A day is a long time in politics. – Owl

Oliver Wright, Policy Editor | Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor | Francis Elliott, Political Editor www.thetimes.co.uk

Every hospital in England faces being overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases if MPs fail to back the government’s tough new restrictions, Michael Gove has warned.

Amid a growing Conservative backbench rebellion over the tiering system, the Cabinet Office minister is calling on MPs to “take responsibility for difficult decisions” to prevent further spread of the disease.

Mr Gove’s intervention, in an article for The Times today, comes as tens of millions of people in Tiers 2 and 3 were warned they were unlikely to be able to socialise indoors until the spring.

The prime minister’s scientific advisers have told him that it won’t be safe for a large number of areas to be moved into Tier 1 until the danger period for the NHS has passed. They conclude that at the lowest level the restrictions are insufficient to stop cases rising.

The prospect of months under onerous curbs will anger MPs in southern England, who claim that their constituencies have had unfair restrictions imposed upon them despite low and falling rates of infection.

Boris Johnson said he understood the frustration but that it was essential to control the virus until a vaccine could be supplied. “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,” he said. “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, the low incidence area starts to catch up.”

Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP for South Thanet, which has the second highest R-rate in the country, said this morning that people naturally “self-regulate” when the local R-rate starts to rise. He told BBC Breakfast that he favoured this response to the “draconian” tiers system, which he plans to vote against on Tuesday.

Mr Gove’s intervention is the strongest defence yet of the government’s strategy. He revealed that the decision to impose a four-week national lockdown was taken after scientists warned that the lockdown rules were not enough to prevent the NHS from being “physically overwhelmed”. “Every bed, every ward occupied. All the capacity built in the Nightingales and requisitioned from the private sector too. The numbers infected with Covid-19 and requiring a bed would displace all but emergency cases. And then even those,” he writes.

Mr Gove said that MPs should not fall for “comfortable evasions” that things were now different or put their constituencies ahead of the national interest. “When the country is facing such a national crisis, the truth is that all of us who have been elected to parliament, not just ministers, must take responsibility for difficult decisions,” he writes.

“Covid-19 is no respecter of constituency boundaries and the hardships we are facing now are unfortunately necessary to protect every single one of us, no matter where we live.”

Mr Gove described the new restrictions that will see the vast majority of the country in tougher tiers as “grimly, inevitably, necessary” to prevent the NHS from being unable to treat emergency patients.

“The level of infection across the country remains uncomfortably and threateningly high. Across the UK, around 16,000 beds are filled with Covid-19 patients, which compares with almost 20,000 at the April peak. From the current high base, any sharp uptick in infection could see the NHS under even more severe threat again.”

He rejected suggestions that the measures were economically damaging, arguing that without them “the economy would grind to a halt” as a terrified population stayed at home rather than risked going without care.

Sage documents published yesterday concluded that while Tier 3 was effective almost everywhere, and Tier 2 in most places, Tier 1 had failed to stop cases rising exponentially.

Mr Gove accepted the previous tiers “were neither strong enough to reduce social contact sufficiently, nor applied widely enough to contain the virus’ spread. And that is the difficult lesson we cannot unlearn as this lockdown ends.”

The gathering Tory rebellion could leave Mr Johnson dependent on Labour support if he is to get the new measures approved. Justin Madders, a Labour health spokesman, said the party would wait to see the detailed regulations before deciding which way to vote. He suggested the government could be forced to make concessions.

“I think that that’s part of the debate we’re going to have about making sure that the public has got confidence that this is the right thing to do,” he told Times Radio. Labour is considering abstaining on Tuesday’s vote.