Boris Johnson has defended his plans for a tiered system to replace the national lockdown in England as he seeks to quell a rebellion against the restrictions from Tory MPs.
The Prime Minister said it would be wrong to “take our foot off the throat of the beast” now, with up to 100 Conservatives unhappy about the new system.
He acknowledged that “lots of people think that they are in the wrong tier” but insisted the measures set to come into force on Wednesday are needed to slow the spread of Covid-19.
His comments, during a visit to a facility of pharmaceutical firm Wockhardt in Wales, where it is hoped a vaccine will be produced, came shortly before the Government published its impact assessment of the tiered approach ahead of Tuesday’s crunch Commons vote.
Mr Johnson insisted the tiers are needed while “the scientific cavalry really are almost here”, as he said a jab could be available “in a few weeks”.
“We can’t afford to take our foot off the throat of the beast, to take our foot off the gas, we can’t afford to let it out of control again,” he told reporters.
“The tiering system is tough, but it’s designed to be tough and to keep it under control.
“I know that lots of people think that they are in the wrong tier and I understand people’s frustration.”
Meanwhile, the Government published its impact assessment of the new strengthened three-tiered approach as ministers sought to minimise the scale of any rebellion.
It acknowledged the “knock-on implications” of restrictions on other health services, mental health and physical wellbeing as well as the economic impact, but said the Government will “continue to pursue the best overall outcomes”.
The document pointed to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast of an 11.3% slump in gross domestic product (GDP) – a key measure of the economy’s size and health.
But it said the alternative of allowing Covid-19 to grow exponentially “is much worse for public health” and stressed the importance of keeping the R number – the reproduction rate of the virus – below 1.
“At the outset of the most difficult time of year for the NHS, and with hospital admissions already high, a sustained period with R above 1 would result in hospitals rapidly becoming overwhelmed,” it warned.
“This could lead to many more Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 deaths that would have been preventable were the NHS to remain within its bed capacity.”
Find out which tier in England your area will be in from 2 December by using the postcode checker ⬇️
— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) November 28, 2020
Conservative former chief whip Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs who are sceptical of further restrictions, said they would “read and analyse” the data overnight.
But he added: “I am disappointed MPs, journalists and the public have been given so little time to digest information of this magnitude.”
Earlier in the day, Cabinet minister George Eustice acknowledged that there is “great frustration” on the Tory benches about the measures, which will see 99% of England facing major restrictions on hospitality and mixing with other households.
Despite being offered another chance to vote on the restrictions early next year – meaning the measures could lapse on February 3 – numerous MPs said they still have reservations.
Labour is not expected to oppose the measures, meaning Mr Johnson should get them through Parliament.
But being forced to rely on decisions being made by Sir Keir Starmer will be uncomfortable for the Prime Minister.
The Labour leader was expected to hold talks with England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, later on Monday as the MP decides whether to support the Government’s tier system.
The Prime Minister’s argument for stringent restrictions will be boosted by new figures suggesting coronavirus infections fell by almost a third in England during the second national lockdown.
There was a 30% drop in cases across the country over almost a fortnight this month, the latest interim findings from Imperial College London’s React study showed.
Regionally, the research suggests infections fell by more than half in the North West and North East, and were also down in Yorkshire and the Humber. But prevalence remained high in the East Midlands and West Midlands.
Professor Paul Elliott, director of the programme at Imperial, said the findings suggest the tiers before the beginning of November, followed by the lockdown, had helped bring cases down.
– The Government said a further 205 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Monday, bringing the UK total to 58,448. There were a further 12,330 lab-confirmed cases.
– Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford announced that pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes will be forced to stop selling alcohol and to shut by 6pm in a new round of coronavirus restrictions that begin on Friday night.
– The Prime Minister announced a £20 million boost for medicine manufacturing in the UK in a bid to strengthen the country’s response to future pandemics.
– The Telegraph said pubs and restaurants hit by the new restrictions will be given extra financial support to help them get through to Christmas.
– Shops will be able to open around the clock in England in December and January to help recoup some of the losses made during lockdown.
– Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the BBC she will not be having an “indoor Christmas dinner” with her parents despite the relaxed rules over the festive period as “I don’t want to put them at risk when a vaccine is so close”.
– Father Christmas will not have to wear a face mask in grottos in England but children will not be allowed to sit on Santa’s knee.
Under England’s new restrictions, 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.