Boris Johnson has written to Conservative MPs offering them a second vote on the coronavirus tier system early next year as he seeks to head off a backbench rebellion in the Commons this week.
The Prime Minister has angered some of his party with a plan to impose stringent restrictions across much of England when the national lockdown ends on Wednesday, and could struggle to get the measures through Parliament on Tuesday.
But in a letter to colleagues on Saturday evening, Mr Johnson said the regulations would contain a sunset clause – or expiry date – of February 3, with MPs offered the chance to vote to extend them.
The Government will review local areas’ tiers every fortnight and bring the regulations before Parliament after the fourth review on January 27 which will determine whether the tier system stays in place until the end of March.
Mr Johnson also said the first such review, on December 16, would consider the views of local directors of public health, with a final decision on whether any areas should change tiers made at a Cabinet committee. The changes would come into effect on December 19.
In a further olive branch to MPs, the Prime Minister committed to publish more data and outline what circumstances need to change for an area to move down a tier, as well analysis of the health, economic and social impacts of the measures taken to suppress coronavirus.
Only the Isle of Wight, Cornwall, and the Isles of Scilly will be under the lightest Tier 1 controls, while large swathes of the Midlands, North East and North West are in the most restrictive Tier 3.
In total, 99% of England will enter Tier 2 or 3, with tight restrictions on bars and restaurants and a ban on households mixing indoors when the four-week national lockdown lifts on Wednesday.
Several senior Tories have expressed opposition to the plan, including the 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady who said he wanted to see people “treated as adults” and trusted with their own health decisions.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions: “I find so many people have been engaged in a wholly responsible way in trying to make sure they can continue some kind of family life, some kind of social life, but being safe, being responsible throughout.
“Especially the older people, who are typically more vulnerable to Covid-19, are also the people who are likely to be most responsible.”
Tory MP Craig Mackinlay, who represents South Thanet which has the second highest R-rate in the UK, said he is planning to vote against the new tiered restrictions on Tuesday.
He told BBC Breakfast that he would instead favour natural “self-regulation” which he says happens when people see the R-rate in their local area starting to rise.
But Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, urged MPs to think what the NHS might be like in January, saying: “You need to take the precautions now to ensure that the NHS doesn’t get overwhelmed at what is always its busiest time of year.”
Mr Johnson acknowledged on Friday that people felt “frustrated”, particularly in areas with low infection rates which now face tighter restrictions than before the lockdown.
He said: “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, the low incidence area, I’m afraid, starts to catch up.”
In other developments:
– The Government said a further 479 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Saturday, while there were another 15,871 lab-confirmed cases.
– Mr Johnson appointed Nadhim Zahawi as a health minister responsible for the deployment of coronavirus vaccines.
– More than 150 people were arrested during anti-lockdown protests in central London, the Metropolitan Police said.
Meanwhile, Conservative former health secretary Lord (Andrew) Lansley said the Government was “wrong” to relax coronavirus restrictions over Christmas, though admitted saying so made him “feel like the Grinch”.
Asked in an interview with Times Radio whether ministers had made an error by allowing families to gather for five days over the festive period, he said: “I think the short answer is yes – I think it was wrong…
“We’ve got to protect old people. And it really is difficult, I think, to suddenly say Christmas, well, let’s not do that. Let’s allow people to mix. Why would we do that?
“We are potentially only maybe weeks, well, perhaps months, but not many months away from the point at which we may be able to vaccinate the most vulnerable and our oldest population?
“Why expose them to any risk in that period? Why allow transmission potentially to accelerate even for a short period?”