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Boris Johnson sees record rebellion from his own Conservative Party on covid policies

LONDON - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has mostly been able to do what he wants since his Conservative Party won a historic majority of seats in Parliament, but on Tuesday he faced a massive rebellion from his own side, as lawmakers came out against his proposals to head off an exploding number of infections driven by the new omicron variant.

Johnson wants people to work from home if they can, to wear face coverings in more settings, and most controversially, and to prove they are fully vaccinated or have had negative coronavirus test before they can enter large, crowded gatherings, both indoors and out - like company Christmas parties and sports events.

In a vote on "covid passes," 99 Conservative lawmakers voted against Johnson's measure, even more than the 70 to 80 who had earlier pledged to rebel. Another 17 Conservative lawmakers abstained.

The measure still passed easily, as did others, with support from the opposition Labour Party. But it was an embarrassing rebuke for Johnson - the largest rebellion he has seen since the December 2019 election and one of the biggest for a Conservative prime minister.

People in British political circles have begun to speculate about whether, perhaps, Johnson might possibly be replaced in the new year.

Conservative backbenchers say they are tired of his restrictions, zigzags, and mixed messaging on the virus, and who remember well how the government last year essentially "canceled" Christmas at the last minute.

Many in his party have grumbled that they don't trust Johnson, who is at a low in public opinion polls these days, amid outcry about Christmas parties that may or may not have happened at Downing Street during lockdown last year.

Those from the libertarian wing of the Tories, as the Conservatives are called, say Johnson's call for masks and passes smacks of nanny-state overreach and represents only the beginning of more intrusive measures to come.

And so "#Gestapo" was trending on Twitter throughout the day in Britain.

Conservative lawmaker Marcus Fysh insisted to BBC Radio that "we are not a papers please! society," riffing off the common cinematic cliche of a German soldier in World War II asking for documents at a check point.

"This is not Nazi Germany," Fysh said.

In a surreal scene in the House of Commons on Tuesday, opposition Labour Party lawmaker Wes Streeting stood to defend the government and declare, "We are not living in the 1930s, and the Secretary of State and his team are not Nazis."

The new rules apply only to England. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales set their own guidelines.

Johnson has warned of a "tidal wave" of new coronavirus infections and highlighted emerging evidence that omicron appears to easily overcome two vaccine doses - but not two plus a booster. He calls the restrictions "balanced and proportionate" in light of the new variant.

Previously, the largest revolt since the election was in December 2020, when 55 Tory lawmakers opposed (and 16 abstained) a multi-tier system of covid restrictions for England.

That December 2020 vote was angry and shouty. Tuesday's proceedings were much more calm.

In addition to compulsory mask-wearing and "covid passes," the government wants mandatory coronavirus vaccination for staff of the National Health Service. That would be in line with existing requirements that nursing-home workers get the jabs.

During the afternoon debate in Parliament, Conservative lawmakers criticized modeling that forecast an explosive number of new cases and hospitalizations as "hysterical" and "lurid" and "severely flawed."

Health Secretary Sajid Javid agreed that some epidemiologists had been wrong in the past, when they predicted skyrocketing deaths.

"But if some models are flawed, it doesn't mean all are," Javid told the chamber.

Other Tories wondered aloud why the government was going to all the trouble, as new research from South Africa suggested the omicron variant was more transmissible but caused less severe illness.

That's maybe a good thing, lawmakers suggested, for achieving "herd immunity" or using omicron "to get rid of delta," the currently dominant variant in Britain and around the world.

Javid patiently explained that even if omicron were less severe, an explosion of cases could still send enough patients to the hospital to overwhelm the national health-care system. Javid said scientists estimate there are 200,000 new cases of omicron a day in Britain.

There was a lot of speechmaking about freedom, mirroring previous debates in the United States, and fulsome paeans to the importance of keeping the pubs open during the holiday season.

Some Tories charged that Johnson's government was needlessly panicking. Others wondered aloud if the new restrictions were a tactic to distract voters from scandals about parties at Downing Street during lockdown last year.

While the lawmakers were debating the new restrictions for England, the Scottish government on Tuesday urged people to limit socializing to no more than two other households at a time.

Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, told Scottish parliament that she was "not asking anyone to cancel Christmas" itself, but they were advising limited mixing on either side of Christmas. She said that the omicron variant - which accounts for at least 27 percent of Scotland's cases - must be taken "extremely seriously."

Published : December 15, 2021

By : The Washington Post