When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the U.K.’s first coronavirus lockdown in March, he met with very little resistance from a stunned and shocked nation. More than six months later, as he weighs up new lockdown rules, Johnson is fighting seven battles with angry critics at the same time.
Millions of people in northern England have had extra restrictions on their social lives for more than two months, after a series of targeted lockdowns were ordered over the summer.
Local leaders have long demanded more say in decision-making for areas neglected by a remote government in London and they were furious when the media was briefed on Wednesday that parts of the North face even tougher measures starting next week, including the closing of pubs and restaurants.Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, accused ministers of ruling by “diktat”, saying “it is proving impossible to deal with this government.” Steve Rotheram, the mayor of the Liverpool City Region, said it is “deeply disappointing” and called for a “genuine dialog between ministers and local leaders”.
Discontent among Tory MPs has been growing in recent weeks, with many raising fears over the impact of restrictions on people’s civil liberties and the apparent lack of parliamentary scrutiny over the measures.Former minister Steve Baker and influential Conservative Graham Brady, who have been leading the charge, called for evidence to back up two key restrictions: a 10 p.m. curfew on pubs and restaurants, and the inclusion of children in the so-called rule of six, which limits social gatherings to that number. Children aren’t counted in Scotland and Wales.
Veteran MP Charles Walker said Parliament has been sidelined on important issues, and summed up the mood of many Conservatives when he warned Johnson last month that “if you keep whacking a dog, don’t be surprised when it bites you back.”
Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle isn’t usually known for his public outbursts, preferring to keep a lower profile than his predecessor John Bercow. But his fury at the government over its handling of coronavirus restrictions was in full force last week.He lashed out at Johnson’s “contempt” for parliament and said the government’s explanations for why the Commons had been ignored were “unconvincing.” Hoyle’s statement effectively gave a green light to Tory MPs to mount an all-out rebellion.
Fellow cabinet ministers
Johnson isn’t even immune from criticism in his own cabinet room, as senior government ministers battle over how to handle the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases. While Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove are reported to be “doves” who back stricter lockdowns, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is among the “hawks” who want to focus on protecting the economy.Sunak has not denied this, telling the BBC on Tuesday it would be “odd” if, as Chancellor, he didn’t speak up for the economy. The Telegraph reported he wanted to exclude Gove from decisions on local lockdowns, so they could be agreed by himself, Johnson and Hancock and the “doves” wouldn’t outnumber the “hawks”.
The Labour Party has been cautiously supportive of the Covid restrictions — but the mood has changed in recent weeks. Leading Labour politicians have joined with Tory rebels to express disappointment at Parliament being kept out of the loop, and demanded to see the scientific evidence behind key measures.They have also raised more fundamental concerns about Johnson’s coronavrus strategy, particularly on delays in the testing system, and how the local lockdowns in northern England and the Midlands have not curbed infection rates. The tide appears to be turning in Labour’s approach — which could spell danger for Johnson in any upcoming votes on restrictions.
Businesses were mainly onside when the government ran its wide-ranging furlough program, paying the wages of workers whose jobs were on pause. Now, as the government dramatically scales back its support, industry leaders are less happy — particularly those in the hospitality sector.Things are likely to get even tougher for the bars and restaurants in the coming weeks, as Johnson prepares to close premises in parts of northern England, even though extra rescue measures are being drawn up for businesses affected by tighter rules.
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Sunak said his new job support program, which replaces furlough, is available for those jobs that are “viable”. Debate is now raging in business over what constitutes a “viable” job — with many people in the creative industries worried for their future.
Even though Johnson takes advice from a group of scientists known as SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), whatever he decides, there will always be scientists who disagree with his approach.
Some Tory MPs have spoken of their support for a global movement known as the Great Barrington Declaration, in which thousands of scientists and medics — including dozens from the U.K. — have warned against lockdown measures.
But other scientists, including John Edmunds, a member of SAGE, have warned that more stringent national measures are needed immediately to get the virus under control.