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U.K. debates Christmas lockdown amid omicron-led covid surge


The U.K. government kept open the prospect of a Christmas lockdown to arrest a surge in the number Covid cases as Boris Johnson faces opposition from within his own cabinet to further restrictions.

Johnson is due to update his ministers on the latest virus situation Monday afternoon alongside Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance, Downing Street spokesman Max Blain told reporters on Monday. Blain declined to comment on whether specific new measures would be introduced.

The government will take "any necessary steps to protect lives and livelihoods," he said. "We are still monitoring the data and keeping a very close eye on it."

The prime minister's scientific advisers have recommended bringing in tougher rules "very soon" to keep hospitalizations from escalating to thousands a day. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said last week limits on household mixing and the closing of hospitality venues could "substantially reduce" the peak in cases.

But Johnson is being squeezed by government scientists on one side and mutinous members of his party on the other, who have already been angered by restrictions they view as unreasonable interference in the lives of ordinary Britons.

Divisions in Johnson's cabinet over Covid policy came to a head over the weekend when David Frost, the minister in charge of post-Brexit negotiations quit, citing the government's pandemic restrictions among his reasons. The Times on Monday said at least 10 cabinet ministers oppose pre-Christmas curbs.

"I left the government because, as I think is well known, I couldn't support certain policies, most recently on Covid restrictions," Frost told Sky News. "If you're a minister, you have to support collective responsibility, you have to support decisions of the government, and I couldn't, so that's why I had to leave."

The scale of Conservative opposition to more curbs was put into stark focus last week, when more than 100 of Johnson's Members of Parliament opposed the introduction of Covid passes to gain entry to venues and large events -- the biggest rebellion of his tenure. The measure was approved only because of support from the opposition Labour Party.

The "crisis of confidence" in Johnson's leadership from the Tories "is impacting on the government's public health response," Labour Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting told Sky on Sunday.

The Times reported that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Truss are among the 10 cabinet ministers resisting calls to toughen the Covid rules before Christmas. Other opponents include Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, and Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, the paper said.

Sunak isn't opposed to new measures, but rather wants to see more evidence backing the need to bring them in, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The chancellor also faces a clamor from hospitality businesses calling for more government support because Christmas bookings have been hit by mass cancellations as Britons dial down their social interactions in the face of the surging pandemic.

"Trading levels are so poor that the need for proportionate government support is already acute, and urgently necessary," Kate Nicholls, chief executive officer of lobby group UKHospitality said. "Speedily delivered grants will be vital to short-term business survival."

The Treasury is examining where support is most needed and how best to deploy it, according to the person, who said any aid would be tied to the nature of any new restrictions -- if there are any.

Johnson's ability to persuade his party to support any fresh measures has been hobbled by a series of missteps that have weakened his standing. Last week's rebellion over Covid rules in the House of Commons was followed by a resounding defeat in a special election that saw the Tories lose a seat they had held for 200 years.

All of that followed weeks of turmoil that began with Johnson's botched attempt to prevent Parliament's suspension of his friend, Conservative MP Owen Paterson over violations of lobbying rules. In between that and the loss of Paterson's seat last week, the Tories have been hit by a string of negative news stories about second jobs held by MPs and about parties and other social gatherings apparently held in breach of Covid rules last year.

The latest controversy comes as the Guardian newspaper published a picture on Monday of Johnson, his wife, and Downing Street staff drinking wine and eating cheese in the garden of No. 10 during lockdown last year. A spokesman for Johnson denied it was a party.

"This was not a social gathering: it is palpably not a social gathering, because you had people in work suits, following meetings that they were having at work," Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told Times Radio. "Let's also remember, Number 10 was a place, the hub, where they were running the crisis response."

Published : December 21, 2021

By : Bloomberg