Covid tiers revolt may leave ministers reliant on Labour in key vote

Peter Walker Political correspondent
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Up to 100 Conservative MPs are concerned at England’s new coronavirus tiers, meaning the government may have to rely on Labour votes to get the system approved by parliament, the UK environment secretary, George Eustice, has said.

Amid increasing Tory backbench disquiet about the post-lockdown tiers, in which virtually all regions in England will be put into the higher two levels this week, Eustice also said ministers could not rule out a third national lockdown.

“I think it’s too early to say,” he told Sky News. “We can’t rule anything out, because this is a rapidly developing situation. The government has to respond to the epidemiological evidence that it will have at a given time.

(December 1, 2020) 

On Tuesday, MPs will vote on whether to approve the three-tier system replacing the national lockdown in England.

(December 2, 2020) 

The current lockdown ends on Wednesday and the new strengthened tier system, if approved, comes into force with nearly 99% of England headed for the strictest two tiers. Only the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are set to go into tier 1, with more than 32 million people in tier 2 and more than 23 million in the toughest tier 3.

(December 16, 2020) 

In a letter to MPs on Saturday, the prime minister explained that the joint biosecurity centre and ministers will consider data weekly throughout the tiers period, while legislation requires a formal review of tiering allocations every fortnight. The first review point is 16 December, with new tier allocations announced the following day – decided by a cabinet committee chaired by the prime minister. They will come into effect on Saturday 19 December, Boris Johnson said.

(December 23, 2020) 

For five days over Christmas there will be a UK-wide relaxation of rules to let up to three households form a 'bubble' so they can mix socially indoors and stay overnight to enjoy the festive period together. In Scotland, a maximum of eight people will be allowed but that does not include under-12s. In Northern Ireland, the window has been extended to 22-28 December to allow for additional travel time between countries.

(February 3, 2021) 

Johnson has announced a “sunset” clause on the tiered restrictions, meaning they will expire on 3 February and require MPs’ approval if they are to be extended into March.

“It’s always difficult to predict exactly what will happen. But we judge at moment that if we stick to the course with this tiered approach, at this stage, then this might get us through the winter.”

Boris Johnson is trying to win over concerned Tories with promises of an economic analysis of the new tiers ahead of Tuesday’s Commons vote, and an appeal to MPs to show unity, saying “the worst is nearly behind us”.

Asked if the scale of Conservative dissent meant the government was expecting to have to rely on Labour votes to get the plan through the Commons, Eustice said: “I don’t know, and the chief whip will be, obviously, talking to those MPs who have got concerns.

He said: “I’ve seen suggestions that there could up to 100 or so people who have got concerns. But the prime minister and other ministers will be working very hard to reassure them about the steps that we’re taking.”

Pressed again on the need for Labour votes, Eustice conceded this was possible. He said: “Like all these things, it will depend on what other parties do, yes. It will depend on what the Labour party choose to do. I think at time like this, when you do have a national emergency, and we’re having to take emergency measures to try and save lives, it’s not the time really for any political party to play political games.”

While the tiers were unveiled as a system that would last until the spring, Eustice said MPs would be offered a vote to renew them in late January. Some MPs are demanding this take place earlier.

From 2 December, England will be divided into three different tiers of restrictions. They are slightly amended from the previous system.

Across all tiers, shops, personal care, gyms and the wider leisure sector are set to reopen. Collective worship and weddings – with a maximum of 15 in attendance – can also resume.

Tier one

Under the new system hospitality businesses in England can stay open until 11pm with table service only but last orders must be made by 10pm, in an effort to stagger departures. The “rule of six” will also remain in place indoors, meaning social household mixing is still allowed.

Spectator sport is set to resume, albeit with limits on numbers and abiding by social distancing. In tier 1, there will be a maximum crowd capacity outdoors of 50% of occupancy of the stadium or 4,000 people, whichever is smaller. Indoors, the maximum capacity is 1,000.

In tier 1, people will be encouraged to minimise travel and work from home where possible. Support bubbles – which allowed a single household to join with another household – are also being broadened across all tiers. Parents with a child under one will be able to form a support bubble, as well as those with a child under five who needs continuous care, such as a child with a disability. Also, in cases where there is a single adult carer, for a partner with dementia for example, they would also be able to form a support bubble.

How was it before?

In the least restrictive tier, also known as alert level “medium”, the rule of six applied indoors and outdoors, meaning up to half a dozen people from different households could gather. Hospitality businesses, such as pubs and restaurants, could stay open but were forced to shut by 10pm – a move that prompted much criticism, including from Conservative backbenchers.

Tier two

Under the new system, although hospitality venues will be allowed to stay open until 11pm – with last orders at 10pm – only those that serve substantial meals can operate. It means pubs and bars that do not will have to close.

As before, social mixing outside of households or support bubbles will not be allowed indoors. The rule of six will apply outdoors.

Spectators will be allowed to watch sport in tier 2, with a maximum crowd capacity outdoors of 50% of the capacity of the stadium or 2,000 people, whichever is smaller. Indoors, the maximum capacity is 1,000.

Indoor entertainment venues, such as cinemas, casinos and bowling alleys, must also close.

How was it before?

In the “high” alert level tier people were prohibited from mixing socially indoors with anybody outside of their household or support bubble but the rule of six remained in place outdoors. Hospitality businesses, such as pubs and restaurants, could open until 10pm but people were only allowed to visit with their household or support bubble.

Tier three

Hospitality venues will have to close, except for delivery and takeaway service. In tier 3, hotels and other accommodation providers must also close, except for specific work purposes where people cannot return home. Outdoor sports, including golf and tennis, will be allowed to continue in all tiers, as will amateur team sports such as football. Unlike the first two tiers, spectators will not be allowed to watch sport in tier 3.

How was it before?

In the most restrictive tier, known as the “very high” alert level that was endured by vast swathes of the north of England, mixing socially indoors between households – unless a support bubble was in place – was banned. Under baseline measures hospitality venues serving substantial food could remain open until 10pm. Up to six people from different households could socialise outdoors in public spaces, such as parks, beaches or public gardens.

Simon Murphy Political correspondent

Eustice said he understood MPs’ concerns: “There’s great frustration with the emergency measures that we’ve had to take to deal with this pandemic. We haven’t taken them lightly, we have had to take these to get the virus under control.

“What we need to show to those MPs, and the country at large, is that we’ve got a clear route towards fixing this problem and turning a corner, and that will come through the deployment of the vaccine.”

In a letter on Sunday to the new Covid Research Group of Conservative MPs, which comprises many of those worried about the new tiers, Johnson promised the analysis would be published on Monday.

“Disagreement on approach is natural, and I hope you recognise that the government is seeking as far as possible to listen to criticism and respond positively to constructive proposals,” the prime minister wrote.

“There is every reason to hope and believe that the worst is nearly behind us, so now more than ever is the time to demonstrate unity and resolve. As we move from winter to spring, the prospects offered by vaccines and testing mean we can begin the process of recovery in earnest and focus our energies once again on improving the lives of the people we were elected to serve.”

Labour is expected to back the government on the tiers, although the shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, said on Sunday that the party was seeking clarity on the new tier system and its support was “not unconditional”.