Now Tory MPs warn: don’t toughen Covid new year rules

Is the colour of the “post-Johnson” government beginning to show itself? -Scary, Owl

Cabinet ministers vying to succeed Boris Johnson have been warned by Tory colleagues that they will damage their chances unless they stridently oppose further Covid measures in England, as MPs called for New Year’s Eve restrictions to be ruled out.

Michael Savage www.theguardian.com

With ministers expected to meet as soon as Monday to discuss whether additional measures are needed to protect hospital capacity, several Conservatives said that they would be watching those emerging as leading contenders to replace Johnson should he step aside before the next election.

The news comes after it emerged government scientific advisers had modelled the impact of implementing so-called “step 2” restrictions from Tuesday. Such measures would see an end to indoor gatherings, limited outdoor gatherings, and bars and restaurants only able to serve outdoors. The modelling suggested that restrictions could reduce deaths by 18% if kept in place until mid-January or 39% if retained until the end of March.

[The modelling report, published on Christmas Eve, can be found here. What it doesn’t seem to cover is the impact of rising infection rates, through sickness and self-isolation, on staffing levels in hospitals under the various scenarios. – Owl]

Delaying the measures until New Year’s Day would reduce their impact, though the scientists said their models did not have “sufficient precision” to detect differences in a small delay. “When an epidemic is rapidly growing, the earlier interventions take place, the larger their effect,” they said.

New coronavirus restrictions are being introduced by the devolved governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, including new physical distancing rules, the closure of nightc lubs and limits on indoor gatherings.

The UK recorded 122,186 new Covid cases on Friday, the highest yet, while the Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.7 million Britons had the virus in the week ending 19 December, also a record.

However, Tory MPs are hardening their attitudes against further restrictions and now want cabinet ministers to be vocal in their opposition. “If No 10 proposes tighter restrictions straight after Christmas, those cabinet ministers with freedom-loving instincts – who gave us all so much hope last week – must speak out,” said one member of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs. “In any future leadership contest, we will all remember how they acted this week. We need real, gutsy, freedom-loving Conservatives to rescue us from this madness.”

Other Tory MPs also said they would consider a candidate’s position on restrictions in any leadership race.

It shows the extent to which speculation over Johnson’s position risks affecting the government’s Covid policies. It also reveals a weakening of the prime minister’s authority after a series of scandals and setbacks that have seen Labour take a poll lead.

Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, are seen as the frontrunners if the Tory leadership becomes available. Both are said to have expressed opposition to the tightening of restrictions recently. Allies of the prime minister have already accused them of jostling for position.

Several MPs said that data suggesting Omicron was less severe than the Delta variant that it has displaced meant that new restrictions should not be needed. “Evidence is showing there is no need for further restrictions,” said Tory MP Richard Drax. “Time to trust people to get on with their own lives and for the state to back right off.” Former minister Desmond Swayne said: “We have earned the right to be treated like adults: to make our own assessment of the risks we are prepared to take and the sensible precautions that we apply. People are fed up with being ordered what not to do.”

Graham Brady, chair of the powerful 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said: “As we look forward to the new year, it is time to move on from the lazy assumption that government has the right to control our lives; we should take responsibility for our own lives once again.” Charles Walker, a former vice-chair of the committee, said: “I think the PM has done extremely well to weigh up the information, hold his nerve and get us to this point. Like everyone, I hope that the emerging data supports the current course of action being maintained.”

However, scientists have continued to stress the need for extreme caution over the next few weeks and to consider further restrictions. “The wiser course is clearly to do everything we can to minimise transmission while the size and nature of the impact of Omicron clarifies itself and while everyone who is willing gets a booster and gets time to mount an immune response to it,” said Professor Adam Finn of Bristol University. “Better to take the flak for overreacting than for failing to act when there was still time.”

This point was backed by Stephen Griffin of Leeds University. “We have to follow the precautionary principle and act ahead of the curve. And that’s the problem at the moment, we’re not doing that. So we will experience harm. We will experience further Long Covid and we will allow the virus to continue to evolve, I’m afraid.”