Boris Johnson Refuses to Re-Write Covid Rules as U.K. Outbreak Slows


Boris Johnson defended his decision to put most of England into the highest levels of pandemic restrictions even as the rate of infection across the U.K. fell to its lowest level since mid-August.

Leading members of Johnson’s Conservative Party have said the government’s new three-tier system to contain the coronavirus when the national lockdown ends next week is too harsh because it groups broad regions together, even if some areas are not hot-spots.

Their argument is likely to be bolstered by the latest data, which indicates the virus is no longer spreading exponentially in the U.K. For the first time since Aug. 14, the so-called R-rate, which estimates how many people each infected person passes the disease on, had a ceiling of 1, the government said Friday. It estimated the range at 0.9 to 1, based on data to Nov. 24.

This will be seen as a sign that the England-wide lockdown in force since Nov. 5 is putting the outbreak into reverse, although the economic damage of shuttering shops and restaurants for a second time is yet to be counted.

New rules will come into force on Dec. 2, dividing the country into one of three tiers of restrictions -- officially ranked medium, high, and very high risk. Only two out of 46 regions of the country are in the lowest tier, prompting the backlash from some Tory members of Parliament.

The premier is struggling to win over his party after eight months of criticism of his pandemic strategy, which has failed to stop the U.K. suffering the highest death toll in Europe. While Johnson won a majority of 80 in last year’s election, there are reports as many as 70 of his Tories will refuse to back his rules when they’re put to a vote in Parliament on Tuesday.

‘Too Authoritarian’

Influential Tory MP Graham Brady this week called the government’s policies “far too authoritarian” and told the BBC he would oppose the tier system in the vote next week. Other Tories have also expressed their displeasure.

In a pooled interview on Friday, Johnson said that while he understood people’s frustration, it was right to adopt a broader regional approach, a plan reported by Bloomberg News last week.

“I know it’s very frustrating for people who feel they’re in a high tier area when there’s very little incidence,” Johnson said Friday. But the alternative is a system based on “very complicated sub-divisions” of the country. “There’s got to be some simplicity and some clarity in the way that we do this.”

Johnson also said regions were drawn up broadly, spanning both high and low-infection areas to help stop the spread of the disease. He added that “a lot of the economy” will open up again next week when the national lockdown ends, with shops, gyms and pools staying re-opening in all three tiers.

The new rules are due to be put to a vote next week before they come into force on Dec. 2 but despite the Tory revolt, the plan is likely to pass with support from the opposition Labour Party.

While Tory MPs are criticizing the strictness of the tier system, government scientists have raised concerns over the plan to loosen the rules for Christmas, which they did not model.

Scientists argue the loosening means it’s inevitable transmission will increase and the R number will rise again, making Christmas a so-called spreading event.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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