UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on Friday fighting back rebels from within his own Conservative Party who are opposed to most of England being put into the toughest two tiers of high COVID-19 alert after the country’s second stay-at-home lockdown ends next Wednesday.
In a Downing Street briefing on Thursday after he ended his self-isolation on being in contact with a COVID-19 positive MP, Johnson defended the three-tier system as the best chance of avoiding a third complete national lockdown in the New Year.
“If we ease off now, we risk losing control of this virus all over again, casting aside our hard won gains, and forcing us back into a New Year national lockdown with all the damage that would mean,” said Johnson.
“Under our Winter Plan, England will return to a tiered system of local restrictions. Our decisions on which area enters which tier are based on public health advice according to five indicators: cases across all ages, especially the over 60s, the rate by which cases are rising or falling, the percentage of those tested in a local population who have COVID-19, and the pressure on the NHS,” he said.
However, the COVID Recovery Group (CRG), made up of Tory backbenchers within his party, said it was “authoritarianism at work”.
“There is no logic whatsoever in having a month of lockdown only for people to have to live under an even more severe set of restrictions afterwards,” said Harriett Baldwin, the Tory MP for West Worcestershire, which has been placed in Tier 2.
Johnson has a comfortable 80-strong majority in the House of Commons, but if 40 of his own MPs vote down his Winter Plan when it comes for a vote next Tuesday, he will have to rely on support from the Opposition to get it through.
And, the Labour Party is expected to decide only early next week whether to back the plans after consultation with government coronavirus experts.
Under plans laid out in the Commons on Thursday, only three areas of England Cornwall, the Isle of Wight, and the Isles of Scilly have been placed into the lowest Tier 1 or the medium restrictions category, with most of England either in Tier 2 or 3.
Under the highest Tier 3 alert level, there is a complete ban on mixing of households except in limited outdoor settings.
For Tier 2, the rule of six applies with up to six members of different households allowed to meet outdoors and under Tier 1, the rule of six applies both indoors and outdoors.
Unlike before, gyms and close-contact beauty services like hairdressers will be able to open in all tiers but government guidance says that people in all tiers who can work from home should continue to do so.
The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the authority to set their own coronavirus regulations but all four UK nations have agreed a joint plan for Christmas, allowing up to three households to get together in a bubble between December 23 and 27.
However, Scotland has set out further advice on what the so-called “Christmas bubble” can comprise of, with an eight-adult limit.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland entered another tough new lockdown on Friday as a two-week circuit breaker .
Non-essential retailers have been told to close except for click-and-collect services and cafes and restaurants can only provide a take-away service. Wales has also been implementing similar measures and continues to impose tough social distancing measures.
It comes as the UK recorded 498 COVID-related deaths in the last 24 hours and 17,555 new cases of coronavirus, with the death toll from the virus now over 57,000.