Boris Johnson has suffered a massive backbench rebellion as over 100 Conservative MPs voted against the introduction of Covid passes for entry into nightclubs and venues for more than 500 people. The measure, along with other restrictions including compulsory masks in most indoor settings and vaccine mandates for healthcare workers, passed comfortably however with Labour votes.
The backbench rebellion, which was much bigger than expected at Westminster, came an hour after the prime minister addressed the 1922 Committee, pleading with MPs to support action now to stop the spread of the Omicron variant from overwhelming the NHS.
The vote came as Britain recorded 59,610 coronavirus cases, the highest daily figure since January, amid warnings from Downing Street that the country faces a "huge spike" in infections with the Omicron variant. The Health Security Agency said on Monday that the real number of new daily infections was probably above 200,000 and Omicron is expected to be the dominant variant in London by Wednesday.
Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday urged people to limit socialising to three households but said the guidance would not apply on Christmas Day so plans to celebrate it should not be cancelled. Shops, bars and restaurants will be obliged to bring back measures to limit numbers, impose physical distancing and put up screens.
Employers in Scotland will be legally obliged to allow employees to work from home but Ms Sturgeon said that schools would remain open. She said it was not a choice between health and the economy but complained that the Conservative government at Westminster had not given Scotland more funding to deal with the spread of the virus.
“There are further steps we could and would have considered today, particularly around hospitality, had we the financial ability to do so. But we don’t,” she said.
Health secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons that the government was introducing its so-called Plan B restrictions to buy time for an accelerated rollout of booster vaccination shots. The government has promised to offer every adult in England a booster dose by the end of this month, despite logistical difficulties that saw long queues forming outside vaccination centres this week.
“These are not steps that we would take lightly. I firmly believe in individual liberty and that curbs should be placed on our freedoms only in the gravest of circumstances. Not only that, but I am, of course, mindful of the costs that restrictions can bring to the nation’s health, to our education and to the economy. So it is vital that we act early and we act in a proportionate way, doing whatever we can to build our defences and to preserve greater freedom for the long term,” he said.
MPs voted for Covid passes by 369 to 126, with 99 Conservatives joining the Liberal Democrats, the DUP, a handful of Labour rebels and two independents to vote against the measure. There were smaller backbench rebellions on compulsory face masks in shops and other indoor settings and mandatory vaccines for healthcare workers.
Labour's shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said Tuesday's votes raised questions about the prime minister's position.
“He’s got to ask himself whether he is the right man to lead our country through the next phase of the pandemic, and Conservative MPs should be asking that question too,” he said.