Boris Johnson let himself be bounced into national lockdown far too soon, say Tory dissenters

Edward Malnick
·5-min read
Mr Johnson will hold a Commons vote on the lockdown before it is due to come into force on Wednesday night - Reuters
Mr Johnson will hold a Commons vote on the lockdown before it is due to come into force on Wednesday night - Reuters
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

Conservative MPs have accused Boris Johnson of allowing himself to be "bounced" into a national lockdown before giving regional restrictions "time to work".

Sir Robert Syms, a former Tory whip, suggested that the Government had not yet properly "audited progress" as a result of the tiering system introduced just 20 days ago. 

Desmond Swayne, another Conservative MP, described the move as "disastrous" and accused ministers of behaving like "headless chickens".

The interventions came as Andrew Sentance, a former member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, accused the Government of pursuing "panic-driven policy" by opting for a second national lockdown.

However, a series of senior ministers and MPs who have publicly and privately rejected calls for a second national lockdown have become persuaded by data showing that the NHS is on course to be overwhelmed on Dec 4, amid a resurgence of Covid-19 across the country. 

They include Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and Priti Patel, the Home Secretary. Sources familiar with their thinking said they had immediately recognised that the data was "not good". 

At a Cabinet meeting on Saturday, Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific  adviser presented figures to the Cabinet setting out the crisis facing the health service.

Downing Street launched a Whitehall leak inquiry has been launched after details of the Government’s proposals to introduce national measures appeared in several newspapers.

Allies of Mr Johnson suggested that ministers pushing for the lockdown had hoped to secure the new measures by releasing them publicly.

Both Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, and Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had pressed the case for an urgent national lockdown at a meeting with Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak on Friday.

Mr Johnson will hold a Commons vote on the lockdown before it is due to come into force on Wednesday night, after previously promising rebels a vote on any “significant national measures”.

On Saturday, Steve Baker, one of the leading backbench opponent of draconian Covid-19 restrictions, was invited into No 10 Downing Street accompanied by Dr Raghib Ali, a consultant in acute medicine from the MP's Wycombe constituency, who has warned that the first lockdown could have done "more health harm than good".

Together with two further scientists taking part via video conference, the pair took up an invitation by No 10 to "red team" the data on which the decisions were being made - a US Army term for allowing commanders to independently challenge operations.

Following the meeting, Mr Baker indicated that he could now support the proposed measures, stating: "It is clear the Prime Minister and the Cabinet face exceptionally difficult choices. "I would encourage the public and all MPs to listen carefully to the Prime Minister. We will all need to think forward several weeks to the circumstances we could face on coronavirus, on health more widely and for people's livelihoods.

"I continue to digest what was an intense day of technical debate."

But, posting on Twitter, Sir Robert Syms, a Conservative MP since 1997 and a whip until 2017, said: "I am open to more measures [but] we have a regional approach which we have not given time to work. If we need to tweak it, fine, let’s measure what works and discard what does not. At the moment the Government is getting bounced into a change before we have audited progress ." 

Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers and another leading critic of continued Covid-19 restrictions, did not comment.

If the Government succeeds in persuading Mr Baker and Sir Graham to back the measure, any revolt by Tory MPs is likely to be minimal.

Sir Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the committee, said he was "sad" about the prospect of a second national lockdown. 

He told the BBC: "There has to be another way of doing this. If you want first world public services, you need a first world economy. Come Spring, we won't have a first world economy anymore. We won't be able to pay pensions, employ people, raise taxes, fund armies, fund police forces. Our hospitality industry will be finished. This is utterly catastrophic."  

On Saturday, Mr Swayne said: "Lockdowns make everyone poorer and poor people even poorer. I fear more people will die sooner than they would have as a consequence of the decision ... In a bad flu season 80,000 people die, but we don’t behave like headless chickens."

Responding to reports of the planned second national lockdown, Mr Sentance said: "The definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result."

However Jeremy Hunt, who now chairs the Commons health select committee, said: "In a pandemic I would rather a PM brave enough to change his mind than one who risks lives by sticking his head in the sand."

On Saturday, the Government faced criticism in some quarters for not introducing a second lockdown sooner. 

In response, Nadine Dorries, the health minister, suggested ministers would have required a "crystal ball" to predict the factors which have now led to the decision.

She said: "If only we had a crystal ball and could actually see how many over 60s would be infected, the positivity rate, the infection rate and the subsequent lag giving us the 14-day anticipated demand on hospital beds on any particular day, three weeks in advance.