Boris Johnson has attempted to quell Conservative and business anger over his handling of the Covid-19 crisis by insisting that a new national lockdown in England would not herald a winter of open-ended closures and claiming the virus could be beaten “by the spring”.
With Tory MPs threatening to vote against his “authoritarian and coercive” lockdown and retailers warning of a “nightmare before Christmas”, Mr Johnson battled to reassure his critics that the new measures were necessary and “time-limited”.
The prime minister insisted Britain would return to a regional system of restrictions at the end of the four-week lockdown on December 2 and that a combination of a vaccine and cheap, rapid tests would “enable us to defeat this virus by the spring”.
But his upbeat message — the latest in a string of optimistic pronouncements by the prime minister — failed to lift the gloom that has settled over the Conservative party and among many business leaders after Mr Johnson’s policy U-turn.
Mr Johnson said there was “no alternative” to a national lockdown, scheduled to start on Thursday, claiming that without action the NHS would have to turn away sick people for the first time because there was “no longer room in our hospitals”.
To soften the blow, Mr Johnson announced that the self-employed would be eligible for income support worth 80 per cent of their average trading profits during November, up from 40 per cent — in line with the increased lockdown support for employees through the furlough scheme.
Because the grants are calculated over three months, it takes the level of support for the self-employed to 55 per cent of trading profits for the period of November-January.
Business groups welcomed a separate announcement of the extension of the government loan schemes to the end of January, warning that many businesses would struggle with cash flow over the next month as they were forced to shut.
Firms will also be able to “top up” existing Bounce Back Loans should they need additional finance to the maximum of £50,000, chancellor Rishi Sunak said. The schemes have already provided guarantees for loans of more than £60bn to 1.4m firms.
Several dozen Conservative MPs have threatened to abstain or vote against the second national lockdown in the UK on Wednesday, urging Mr Johnson to publish an impact assessment of the economic and health costs to the country of imposing the tough new restrictions.
Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 committee, said: “As we drift further into an authoritarian coercive state, the only legal mechanism left open to me is to vote against the legislation.”
Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922, claimed the lockdown would be seen “as a form of evil” if introduced by a totalitarian state. One senior MP said Mr Johnson was “in serious but not imminent trouble”.
Tory MPs expressed dismay both at Mr Johnson’s abrupt change of tack on a national lockdown, but also the chaotic announcement of the policy on Saturday after details leaked. One former minister said: “A lot of people think these people are shit and can’t do the job.”
Meanwhile cabinet members, many of whom learned of the new policy through leaks to the media, were dismayed that Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, had suggested on Sunday that the lockdown could be extended beyond December 2.
“That wasn’t what was agreed,” said one minister. Downing Street was also irritated with Mr Gove and Mr Johnson was determined to make it clear that the lockdown was “time-limited” and the next steps in December would have to be approved by MPs.
Mr Johnson’s lockdown, which includes the closure of pubs, restaurants and non-essential retail as well as severe restrictions on social interaction, is being supported by Labour and is certain to win parliamentary approval.
But opposition leader Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson’s delay on introducing a policy first proposed by his scientists six weeks ago amounted to “a catastrophic failure of leadership and judgment”.
Sir Keir said Mr Johnson’s strategy of beating the virus through a £12bn test-and-trace system and a “tiered” system of regional lockdowns had been “swept away”. He said Mr Johnson had “over-promised and under-delivered” throughout the pandemic.
Mr Johnson said the government would use the lockdown to allow time for the development of vaccines and the rollout of “cheap, rapid turnround tests”. He said the “exit strategy” would be to drive down the R number, the reproduction rate of the virus.