Johnson Wrestles With Christmas Lockdown to Halt Omicron Surge
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson is locked in a debate over imposing fresh coronavirus restrictions as Christmas approaches amid opposition from his own cabinet.
The U.K. prime minister updated ministers on the rapid spread of the omicron variant on Monday afternoon alongside Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance. Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab refused to rule out a Christmas lockdown.
The Sun and the Times newspapers reported that the premier won’t announce fresh restrictions on Monday. But the Mirror said additional rules may be may be introduced from Dec. 27.
The government will take “any necessary steps to protect lives and livelihoods,” Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters. “We are still monitoring the data and keeping a very close eye on it.”
Johnson is being squeezed by government scientists on one side -- who are pushing for tougher restrictions to be imposed “very soon” -- and mutinous members of his party who see further rules as unreasonable and unnecessary interference in people’s daily lives.
One of the options outlined by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is a set of restrictions known as Step Two, last imposed as the country emerged from lockdown earlier in the year. Pubs and restaurants would only be allowed to serve customers outdoors, indoor mixing between households would be banned, and a maximum of six people or two households would be allowed to interact outdoors.
The Mirror said the prime minister is considering applying those restrictions from Dec. 27 for a month.
Divisions in Johnson’s cabinet over Covid policy came to a head over the weekend when David Frost, the minister in charge of post-Brexit negotiations, quit, citing the government’s pandemic restrictions among his reasons. According to the Times, at least 10 cabinet ministers are opposed to pre-Christmas curbs.
“I left the government because, as I think is well known, I couldn’t support certain policies, most recently on Covid restrictions,” Frost told Sky News. “If you’re a minister, you have to support collective responsibility, you have to support decisions of the government, and I couldn’t, so that’s why I had to leave.”
The scale of Conservative opposition to more curbs was put into stark focus last week, when more than 100 of Johnson’s Members of Parliament opposed the introduction of Covid passes to gain entry to venues and large events -- the biggest rebellion of his tenure. The measure was approved only because of support from the opposition Labour Party.
The “crisis of confidence” in Johnson’s leadership from the Tories “is impacting on the government’s public health response,” Labour Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting told Sky on Sunday.
The Times reported that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are among the 10 cabinet ministers resisting calls to toughen the Covid rules before Christmas. Other opponents include Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, and Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, the paper said.
Sunak isn’t opposed to new measures but wants to see more evidence backing the need to bring them in, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The chancellor also faces a clamor from hospitality businesses calling for more government support because Christmas bookings have been hit by mass cancellations as Britons dial down their social interactions in the face of the surging pandemic.
“Trading levels are so poor that the need for proportionate government support is already acute, and urgently necessary,” Kate Nicholls, chief executive officer of lobby group UKHospitality said. “Speedily delivered grants will be vital to short-term business survival.”
The Treasury is examining where support is most needed and how best to deploy it, according to the person, who said any aid would be tied to the nature of any new restrictions -- if there are any.
Johnson’s ability to persuade his party to support any fresh measures has been hobbled by a series of missteps that have weakened his standing. Last week’s rebellion over Covid rules in the House of Commons was followed by a resounding defeat in a special election that saw the Tories lose a seat they had held for 200 years.
All of that followed weeks of turmoil that began with Johnson’s botched attempt to prevent Parliament’s suspension of his friend, Conservative MP Owen Paterson over violations of lobbying rules. Between that and the loss of Paterson’s seat last week, the Tories have been hit by a string of negative news stories about second jobs held by MPs and about parties and other social gatherings apparently held in breach of Covid rules last year.
The latest controversy comes as the Guardian newspaper published a picture on Monday of Johnson, his wife, and Downing Street staff drinking wine and eating cheese in the garden of No. 10 during lockdown last year. A spokesman for Johnson denied it was a party.
“This was not a social gathering: It is palpably not a social gathering, because you had people in work suits, following meetings that they were having at work,” Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told Times Radio. “Let’s also remember, Number 10 was a place, the hub, where they were running the crisis response.”
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