A Tory Lockdown Revolt Is Looming As MPs Threaten To Rebel If Vaccine Target Is Hit With No Exit Plan
The government is being told by a growing number of its own MPs that a plan to remove coronavirus restrictions must be published if the vaccine target is reached next month – or face a Commons rebellion.
Signs from within the Tory party show a rising number of MPs are becoming restless with lockdown and tensions could reach a tipping point if a roadmap to reduce measures is not revealed.
Backbenchers from all factions of the party have told PoliticsHome that if the top four tiers in the vaccine priority list receive their first jab by February 15 as planned, ministers must begin outlining the process for the country to return to normality, or face a backlash in Parliament.
“I would really like to see that, and I definitely don’t think I am alone,” one member of the 2019 intake said.
But so far Number 10 has repeatedly refused to put a timeframe on when this lockdown will be lifted, and Boris Johnson angered MPs further by suggesting strict measures may be in place until the summer to deal with the more virulent strain of Covid-19.
On Friday Downing Street announced there was new evidence suggesting that the mutant strain of Covid-19 responsible for a recent surge in cases was also more deadly. The warning followed a catastropic week with the virus in the UK, with 1,820 deaths recorded on Wednesday – the highest daily total of the pandemic so far.
But the week also saw a record number of people vaccinated in the UK, with over 70s now beginning to be offered the vaccine, in addition to over-80s and healthcare workers.
Mark Harper, the former Conservative chief whip who leads the Covid Recovery Group within the party, said: “Once the top four risk groups have been vaccinated and fully protected by 8 March - assuming the Government hits the 15 February deadline – the Government must start easing the restrictions.”
The previous lockdowns have been based on rising case numbers, hospital admissions and deaths, but this one has the added dimension of the vaccine rollout alongside it.
The government’s own calculations show the top four at-risk groups account for around 88% of deaths, so they risk being a victim of their own success as its MPs are less willing to accept restrictions if they are all inoculated.
“If he won’t make that judgement what is the point of him being PM?” – Sir Desmond Swayne
Suggestions from government advisors and scientists in meetings with backbenchers that the country can’t fully unlock until young people are vaccinated too, due to the risk of ‘long Covid’, have added to the growing unease.
Sir Desmond Swayne, who sits in the more militant anti-lockdown wing of the CRG, said the idea of restrictions being in place until the summer was “madness”.
He told PoliticsHome: “The main effort has always been to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.
“Vaccinating the vulnerable – those most likely to be hospitalised if infected – reduces the risk to the NHS.
“So as vaccination progresses there must be a point at which the PM makes a judgement about the continuing risk to the NHS as against the devastating social and economic cost of continuing lockdown.”
The senior backbencher added: “If he won’t make that judgement what is the point of him being PM?”
From conversations with Tories it appears that while they wish the CRG were less vocal, they are no longer a fringe element and now represent a much broader sentiment within the party that is not willing to see lockdowns continue much further without a plan to remove them.
Former minister Tim Loughton said with the Tory party there is “growing concern about the lack of a route map out of the lockdown”.
“Which is why many of us have called for the middle of February post half-term to be the default date for schools to go back for example," he added.
“And for the DfE to plan on that basis – unless things have got worse to change that course of action.”
He told PoliticsHome: “There will be a tipping point soon when the vaccination levels show a very clear sustainable fall in infection rates and hospital admissions, and the government should be in a position to react very soon after that is reached.”
Asked what would happen within Conservative ranks if by mid-February the government had met its target to vaccinate all those in the top four tiers and hospital admissions were coming down, he said: “Definitely a backlash in that scenario, and the CRG has been growing in support.”
The lack of a plan on when to reopen schools is also causing disquiet, especially with a continued lack of provision of laptops and data which is hindering remote learning.
A growing number of Tory MPs also want to see teachers vaccinated as soon as possible to help see classrooms unlocked, which will make it easier for parents to go back to work too, but Number 10 is so far sticking to the priority list from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which does not include teachers.
Some MPs have spoken of their unhappiness with the November lockdown, having felt the tier system it replaced was working, but the government avoided a bigger rebellion because the new variants arrived.
“By this time next month, there is going to be the mother of all arguments” – Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, Sage member
But this time around they say they will be less willing to keep their misgivings to themselves, with one Conservative from the less outspoken wing of the CRG telling PoliticsHome: “We can’t just keep going into lockdowns.
“We just can’t afford it and the long-term impacts are going to be so detrimental to people’s health and children’s opportunities.”
They said that “if everything stays the same,” and the rollout isn’t thwarted by a more troublesome new strain of the virus, “there will be a real concerted push, and not just from people who have been sticking their heads above the parapet, but from colleagues who have been quiet on this issue up to now, to get life back to normal.”
While their constituents accepted the seriousness of the new variant and the need to go into lockdown again, there would be a backlash against staying under strict restrictions “for a second longer than necessary”.
Not all feel the same way, one MP replying bluntly to the question of unease within the party: “I am supporting the government on this.”
Number 10 don’t seem likely to bow to internal pressure anytime soon either, partly because Labour’s support of lockdown measures so far means that even a massive Tory rebellion would not cause the government an issue with continuing restrictions if it comes to a vote.
The PM’s official spokesman delivered a rebuke this afternoon to Tory MPs, saying: “It's important that we continue to monitor the latest situation.
“You see the latest figures that we publish on a daily basis which clearly show that transmission rates of the virus remain high.
“The NHS continues to be under pressure and the number of patients admitted to hospital remains at a high level.
“It's obviously the case that we want to see the transmission rate of the virus come down and therefore the pressure on the NHS eased.
“The Prime Minister has been clear that we will lift restrictions as soon as we can but only when it is deemed safe to do so.”
But Sage member Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter predicted: “by this time next month, there is going to be the mother of all arguments”.
“Because it's quite feasible that deaths will have come down considerably, infections should have come down considerably, hospitalisations and ICU will still be under a lot of pressure," he told the BBC.
“There will be enormous pressure to loosen things up.
“Loosening it up will inevitably lead to an increase in cases, a resurgence of the pandemic among younger groups, and we can see then that does seep through into hospitalisations.
“So there's going to be a real battle going on.”