Boris Johnson has made a final appeal to Conservative backbenchers to support his new system of tiered coronavirus restrictions, saying the country just needed to “hold our nerve” for a few more months before the likely arrival of vaccines.
Addressing the Commons ahead of a vote on the English system on Tuesday evening that could see anything from 30 to 100 Tories rebel, Johnson said he accepted that many people felt they had been “unfairly” put under higher-than-need rules.
While he announced a much-trailed package of extra support for pubs obliged to close in the higher tiers, Johnson did not offer potential rebels any more tangible concessions, simply reiterating a promise that MPs will vote again on the system on 2 February.
With Labour set to abstain in the vote, the government will almost inevitably win. However, a significant rebellion would be seen as damaging for the prime minister’s authority.
In a speech peppered with hostile interventions from his own MPs, Johnson repeatedly returned to the hope of mass vaccination in the spring.
“All we need to do now is to hold our nerve, until these vaccines are within our grasp, and indeed being injected into our arms,” the prime minister said.
However, he warned that people had to accept that “no vaccine is here yet”, adding: “We can’t be completely sure when the moment will arrive. And until then, we cannot afford to relax, especially during the cold months of winter.”
The tiers will come into force when the current England-wide lockdown ends on Wednesday, with around 99% of the country put into the top two tiers, meaning significant restrictions on household mixing and on hospitality businesses.
Johnson said that pubs which do not serve food, and can thus not operate in either tiers 2 or 3, except for takeaway drinks, would get a one-off payment of £1,000, “recognising how hard they’ve been hit by this virus in what is typically their busiest month”.
There was, Johnson said, “a compelling case” to keep a tiered system of restrictions across England, insisting that this did nonetheless represent a loosening of rules.
“This is not another lockdown. Nor is this the renewal of existing measures in England,” he said. “The tiers that I’m proposing would mean that from tomorrow everyone in England, including those in tier 3, will be free to leave their homes for any reason.
“And when they do they will find the shops open for Christmas, the hairdressers open, the nail bars open, gyms, leisure centres, swimming pools open.”
A series of Conservative MPs intervened to complain that the county-wide divisions for tiers were too broad, and did not take into account huge differences within these areas.
Pressed about this by Mark Jenkinson, the Tory MP for Workington, Johnson said he would like the tiering to become “as granular as possible”, but made no specific commitment.
In response to a complaint by a Labour MP, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, about why his constituency of Slough is in the highest tier, Johnson said he accepted why people might be angry.
“I understand what he is saying, and I appreciate people’s feelings of injustice. And people do feel it, there is no question. People feel they have been unfairly attracted by proximity into a higher tier than they deserve,” Johnson said.
Urging MPs to back mass community testing efforts, Johnson also hit at Labour over the party’s decision to abstain in Tuesday’s vote, saying this meant the party had “no view on the way ahead”.