UK health secretary Sajid Javid has rejected the case for mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations as the government braces for a significant Conservative backbench rebellion on its new coronavirus restrictions for England.
At least 30 Tory MPs have expressed public dismay at the latest measures announced on Wednesday, including vaccine passports, mandatory masks in many indoor settings and work from home guidance. Party whips are preparing for a major battle to pass the measures next week without relying on opposition support.
Boris Johnson hinted at a Downing Street press conference that the government may look at introducing compulsory jabs if a small but significant proportion of the population remain unvaccinated and the NHS risked being overwhelmed.
There is growing concern within the scientific community regarding the transmissibility and severity of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.
While Omicron only makes up a small fragment of daily infections in the UK, 568 cases have been identified and the number of new infections is doubling every three days, according to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
The prime minister said a “national conversation” was required and the country could not “keep going indefinitely with restrictions on people’s way of life just because a substantial number of people have not got vaccinated”.
But when asked on Thursday by Sky News if mandatory vaccines could be introduced, Javid responded: “Well no. I’ve got no interest in mandatory vaccinations — apart from the high risk settings in the NHS and social care which we’ve already set out that we will legislate for.
“Other than that if you’re talking about universal mandatory, I think ethically it’s wrong. But also at a very practical level it just wouldn’t work. Getting a vaccine has to be a positive decision.”
The health secretary said he remained hopeful that no further Covid restrictions would be required beyond these measures. “The action we’ve taken now is very decisive, it’s going to make a big difference . . . it’s better to take this action now than see the rate of spread increase.”
Prominent political figures have warned that pursuing mandatory vaccines may backfire. Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, described it as “a step too far”, adding that floating the idea was “a poor judgment call and, at this stage of the pandemic, quite a dangerous one”.
Peter Bone, a longstanding Conservative MP, told the BBC that he would submit a letter of no confidence in Johnson if the government opted for mandatory jabs. Angela Richardson, Tory MP and an aide to minister Michael Gove, tweeted: “I can say categorically that compulsory vaccinations are a step too far.”
Conservative whips are preparing for a major battle to pass the latest restrictions. In a recent House of Commons vote on reintroducing self-isolation for those returning from abroad, 30 Tory MPs rebelled. The rebellion on the so-called Plan B measures is expected to be bigger.
One minister suggested Johnson did not have the votes to pass the measures. “I can’t see how we’re going to get this through without Labour votes and that’s a very dangerous place for any prime minister to be.”
Johnson is also facing further political pressure over the investigation into at least three Downing Street Christmas parties during lockdown last year, which are being investigated by cabinet secretary Simon Case.
The Conservatives confirmed that a gathering was also held at its HQ on December 14 by those working on the campaign for the party’s failed London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey. It confirmed the event and said “formal disciplinary action” had been taken against four staffers.
Mark Harper, a former chief whip and chair of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown sceptic Conservative MPs, said the combination of both stories had weakened Johnson’s standing. “Why should people listen to the prime minister’s instructions to follow the rules when people inside Number 10 Downing Street don’t do so?”