'Why does the PM hate Slough?': Boris Johnson probed over new Covid tier controls ahead of vote

Boris Johnson is hoping to unite the Tory Party around his plan for tiered coronavirus restrictions.

Boris Johnson's plan for a return to tiered coronavirus restrictions has been receiving widespread criticism from across the House of Commons, with several MPs saying they will reject his plan when it is put to a vote this evening.

The PM, kicking off the Commons debate on the new restrictions, said "there remains a compelling case for regional tiers in England" because around 1 in 85 people in England has coronavirus.

But it is clear he's losing support over his response to the coronavirus crisis, with up to 70 Tory MPs considering whether to rebel, and Labour saying it will abstain from the vote, for the first time during the pandemic.

The prime minister was accused of hating Slough by the area's MP, who questioned why the town was the only part of Berkshire to be placed into Tier 3, despite having lower levels of Covid-19 than many Tier 2 areas.

Labour's Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi said "more fairness, clarity and transparency" was needed for the tier system, adding: "We were promised a regional approach. "

"However, what the powers that be have done is they have placed little old Slough in Tier 3 despite the fact we have been segregated from the wider region, and there are areas in neighbouring London and Essex with higher Covid transmission rates.

"So why does the Prime Minister hate Slough?"

Responding, Mr Johnson insisted the government will look at how the restrictions can reflect "as closely as possible the reality of what is happening on the ground", but the commitment wasn't enough to win support from MPs on his own backbenches.

Sir Graham Brady announcing he had been left with "no choice" but to oppose the Covid-19 regulations.

The influential chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee said: "If government is to take away fundamental liberties of the people whom we represent, they must demonstrate beyond question that they're acting in a way that is both proportionate and absolutely necessary.

"Today, I believe the Government has failed to make that compelling case."

Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, made up of lockdown-sceptic Tories, said the "wheels are coming off the government's arguments" for further controls.

Despite what appears to be large opposition to the PM's plan, the chances of it being defeated in this evening's vote are extremely slim, due to his huge Commons majority.

But he still wants support from his own MPs when his plan is put to a vote at around 7pm.

"We cannot afford to relax, especially during the cold months of winter," Mr Johnson said, in an appeal to sceptical Tories.

He said relaxing restrictions would "would be the surest way of endangering our NHS and forcing us into a New Year lockdown".

Sir Keir Starmer – who has previously backed government measures – said while his party had “serious misgivings” it would not be in the national interest to vote them down when the virus still posed a “serious risk”.

However, with scores of Conservative MPs deeply unhappy at the extent of the restrictions, the vote is likely to throw Tory divisions into sharp relief.

Many backbenchers are furious their constituencies face stricter controls than before the latest lockdown which ends on Wednesday.

At a No 10 news conference on Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he hoped some areas could be moved into lower tiers when the restrictions come up for their first fortnightly review on December 16.

But scientists advising the Government have made clear they see little scope for any widespread easing before Christmas.

It could mean most areas of England will go into the new year in one of the toughest two tiers with a ban on households mixing indoors and strict controls on the hospitality sector.

Only the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly have been designated for the lightest Tier 1 restrictions.

What can you do in each tier from December 2? The new rules in England at a glance:

  • Tier 1: Up to six people can meet indoors or outdoors. Pubs and restaurants can open, with last orders at 10pm and closing at 11pm.

  • Tier 2: No mixing indoors, apart from support bubbles. Up to six people can meet outdoors. Pubs and restaurants can open, with last orders at 10pm and closing at 11pm - but alcohol can only be served with a substantial meal.

  • Tier 3: No mixing indoors. People can only meet outdoors in limited places such as parks and public gardens. Pubs and restaurants must close, with the exception of takeaway sales.

In all tiers, non-essential shops, gyms, hairdressers and personal care services can open. People in all tiers to work from home where they can do so. Full details on what you can do in each tier here.

Meanwhile, the government said a rapid coronavirus test that gives results in 20 minutes has been confirmed as having high sensitivity to the virus.

An evaluation carried out by NHS trusts and universities found the OptiGene RT-Lamp test to be effective in identifying infectious cases, including for people not displaying symptoms, in contrast to a report by the Guardian earlier this month claiming the test identified only 46.7% of infections during a trial in Manchester and Salford.

It comes as the head of operations for the mass community testing programme, General Sir Gordon Messenger, said the scheme may not be able to reach areas in Tier 3 until “January and beyond”.

The Government said a further 205 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Monday, bringing the UK total to 58,448.

Students get a Covid-19 test at a mass testing centre set up at the sports centre at St Andrews University, ahead of the Christmas holiday Credit: Jane Barlow/PA

On Monday the government published its promised impact assessment of the health, economic, and social effects of the pandemic and its tiered approach.

But while it acknowledged there would be “significant costs” to individuals, society and the economy, it said the consequences for public health in allowing the virus to run unchecked would be “much worse”.

It said that without strong measures in place, the R number – the rate of reproduction of the virus – was likely to rise significantly above 1, leaving the NHS unable to cope.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told ITV News it is "vitally important that we have a robust tier system" which will "help to reduce the rate of infection" and as a result, "reduce the pressure on the NHS".

Birmingham ahead of the city being placed into the more restrictive Tier 3 this week after the national lockdown in England comes to an end. Credit: PA

"It's painful that we have to [introduce restrictions] but the consequences of not doing so would definitely be worse than the restrictions".

However Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Research Group of Tory MPs opposed to tougher restrictions, said the document acknowledged the “precise size and duration” of any breach in the capacity of the NHS to cope was “not possible to predict”.

There was frustration among MPs that the analysis did not include a detailed breakdown of the effects of the measures on different sectors of the economy – particularly hospitality, which has been among the hardest hit.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Sir Keir Starmer said Labour still had “serious misgivings” about the government’s plans but he accepted that some restrictions were still needed.

“We will not be voting them down tomorrow. That would not be in the national interest . I think to vote down this scheme would be irresponsible,” the Labour leader said.

“We will abstain tomorrow and that will mean that the regulations go through.”

Labour shadow minister Lucy Powell said: "We are expressing our unhappiness with the nature of some of those restrictions and how they’re being brought in but particularly about the lack of business and economic support for pubs and restaurants and cafes who are now going to be stuck in Tier 3 for a long time to come”