Boris Johnson is facing an increasingly bitter fight over placing English regions into the new levels of coronavirus lockdown, with MPs and council leaders warning the government of significant anger if too many areas end up in the top tier.
The government is expected to tell local regions across England over the course of Thursday which of the three tiers they will be in, under a new plan for the winter that comes into operation once the national lockdown ends on 2 December.
There is widespread expectation that almost no regions will be in the bottom tier, and the main fight is over not being placed in tier 3, under which pubs, restaurants and hospitality businesses can only operate as takeaways, and almost all household mixing is barred.
Council leaders in London say they expect the entire capital to be placed in tier 2, which has slightly looser restrictions, and where hospitality businesses can open with limitations, and that public health advice backed this. One leader said there would be “serious kickback”, including from Conservatives in the capital, if it did not happen. However, others in the capital said the decision was in the balance.
Nigel Evans, the MP for Ribble Valley in Lancashire, said Johnson would have a Zoom call with about 22 members of the Northern Research Group of MPs on Wednesday night, during which discussion about tiers would be top of the agenda.
Evans, a Commons deputy speaker, cautioned against putting Ribble Valley and Chorley – which have had lower infection rates than other parts of the county – into high restriction tiers.
“The figures in Chorley and the Ribble Valley have been greatly reduced and it would be unhelpful if we were lumped in with other parts of Lancashire simply because their figures are higher,” he said.
Evans added: “There is no incentive with this ‘all in the same bucket’ approach and there should be some recognition for those areas that have managed to bring their numbers down.”
Seven Conservative MPs from Kent have sent Matt Hancock, the health secretary, a letter urging him to introduce tiers across a borough or district level, rather than always putting whole counties in the same level.
“The differences across the county are large and communities need to be treated appropriately,” said Tom Tugendhat, the Tory MP for Tonbridge and one of the letter’s signatories.
The Birmingham Perry Barr MP, Khalid Mahmood, said the “mood music” was that the city was heading towards the highest tier 3 restrictions. The city is in the top 30 in England, with an infection rate of 351 cases per 100,000 people, down from last week’s 388 cases.
“An initial two weeks was talked about with a review during that period,” he said.
He added: “It was agreed that we should as MPs make representations on the hospitality industry in particular, asking for greater clarity on criteria, the giving of more notice and necessary economic support. Liam [Byrne, MP for Hodge Hill] will anchor for us on that.”
Johnson faces sufficiently strong opposition among Conservatives that it is possible he may need to rely on Labour to pass the measures when MPs vote on them in the Commons next week.
One backbench Conservative said he felt the relatively muted response to the plans in the Commons when the tiers were outlined by Johnson on Monday was “about as good as it’s going to get” for the government.
“I suspect lots of MPs were willing to give it a chance, particularly with the announcement about the vaccine,” the MP said. “But once we hear the news about which area is in what tier, particularly if virtually nowhere is in tier 1, it could start to get much more difficult.”
The MP said they were unlikely to support the measures, whatever happened with tiering: “I suspect the best they’ll get out of me is an abstention.”
Another Conservative MP said Johnson was likely to be pressed for more financial support for the hospitality sector on a Zoom call with “red wall” Tories later on Wednesday. He said there had been little support for suppliers, brewers or producers – particularly in areas under restrictions for months – and wants the government to scrap business rates for another year.
Paul Foster, the Labour leader of South Ribble council, warned the government against putting the whole of Lancashire into tier 3, saying he would consider legal action if his district was again put under the highest restrictions.
Over the past seven days, South Ribble had an infection rate of 212.1 per 100,000, lower than the English average of 230 per 100,000.
Foster said: “If we are going into tier 3 all hell will break loose, it’s going to kick off. There’s a concern they are going to put the whole county of Lancashire into tier 3. I would even consider legal action to challenge it.
“The more I look at this, the numbers of infections are tumbling down in the north of England apart from a few hotspots – and those hotspots accept that they will need help bringing their cases down. The government has got itself in a pickle over this because infections are rising in London while they are falling here.”
Leaders in Greater Manchester are also understood to be seeking a united front to ensure the whole region goes into tier 2, although some local Conservative MPs want to avoid constituencies with lower Covid case rates being grouped in with worse-hit areas.
Some leaders were briefed by the Cabinet Office on Wednesday. One person involved said they were warned against leaking information, “which is amusing since Downing Street has more leaks than my wooden boat restoration”.