Boris Johnson confronts backbench critics over Covid restrictions

Boris Johnson has confronted critics of his coronavirus strategy, insisting there is “only one way of doing this” and saying he is not willing simply to “let the virus take its course”.

After days of criticism from his own restive backbenchers and local leaders, the prime minister gave a press conference in which he stood by his decision to impose a 10pm closing time on pubs and restaurants across England, as well as more stringent local rules affecting millions of people.

Johnson’s tone appeared to contrast sharply with that of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who used last week’s winter economic plan to insist that the public must learn to “live without fear”.

At a Downing Street press conference alongside the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and his chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, the prime minister said: “I know that some people will think we should give up, and let the virus take its course, despite the huge loss of life that that would potentially entail. I have to say I profoundly disagree. I don’t think it’s what the British people want. They don’t want to throw in the sponge.

“There is only one way of doing this, and that is by showing the collective forbearance, common sense and willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of others.”

He added: “If the evidence requires it, we will not hesitate to take further measures, that would I’m afraid be more costly than the ones we have put in place.”

Johnson was speaking after agreeing to give MPs more of a say over future coronavirus restrictions, in a concession to scores of rebels from across his party angry about being sidelined by Downing Street.

Some of his colleagues had reacted angrily to the stark warning from Whitty and Vallance last week about the scale of the threat from the disease, with New Forest West MP Desmond Swayne even calling for the pair to be sacked.

But Vallance insisted: “We don’t have this under control at the moment.” The latest official data showed 7,108 new cases across the UK, and 71 deaths for the second day in a row. The cases figure was slightly down on the 7,143 reported on Tuesday.

Giving an update, Whitty stressed rising hospital admission rates and intensive care admissions, saying they were “definitely heading the wrong way”, and pointing out that they were moving from younger age groups into the older population.

“Older people are getting this, and they are then having to go into hospital, and transferring, some of them, sadly, into intensive care,” he said.

Whitty suggested the pandemic appeared to have become “more highly concentrated in certain areas”, rather than the nationwide wave seen earlier this year – but insisted it was “far too early to say”.

Vallance said: “This is heading in the wrong direction, there is no cause for complacency at all. We all need to make sure we reduce the number of contacts we’ve got; we need to reduce contacts in certain environments, particularly indoor spaces poorly ventilated.”

Asked if he felt more measures were necessary, he said: “The decisions that need to be made are clearly very difficult. Scientists can provide advice on the situation; ministers have to make decisions about when and how to act.”

Johnson had to apologise on Tuesday after fumbling the details of new lockdown rules in the north-east, hours after skills minister Gillian Keegan had also failed to provide an answer to the question of whether members of different households could meet outdoors.

The business secretary, Alok Sharma, sent out to defend Johnson in a series of media interviews, repeatedly criticised what he called “gotcha” questioning by journalists, comparing questions about the details of local rules to a “quiz”.

In the Commons, Johnson saw off a rebellion by backbench MPs on Wednesday, but only by promising them a greater say in the future.

The House debated the renewal of the emergency coronavirus legislation that granted sweeping powers to ministers. A rebel amendment tabled by Graham Brady, chair of the influential 1922 committee of MPs, was not selected by the Speaker to be voted on for procedural reasons.

But the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, chastised the government for making sweeping rules without the approval of parliament, saying it was “completely unsatisfactory”.

“I now look to the government to rebuild trust with this House and not treat it with the contempt that it has shown,” he added.

After talks with Tory rebel leader Steve Baker, who has compared the government’s powers to those of George Orwell’s Big Brother, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced what he called a new “convention”, that MPs will generally be allowed a vote before new curbs come into force.

Earlier, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, had urged the prime minister to provide more financial support for jobs under threat because of Covid restrictions.

At prime minister’s questions, Starmer read out a letter from the owner of a wedding events business based in the Yorkshire constituency of the chancellor, saying the government had “closed their ears” to the plight of the industry.

“But for these extraordinary restrictions, these are viable jobs,” Starmer said, accusing Johnson of being “tin-eared” about the plight of those set to lose their jobs as the furlough scheme winds down.

“These businesses are doing the right thing. Why has the government decided that these jobs aren’t worth saving?”

In response, Johnson said the country had to work together and comply with regulations to restrict the spread of Covid-19, which would in turn help businesses reopen. He said: “We’re putting our arms around the whole of the UK economy. We will do everything we can to save every job.”

The Guardian

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