Boris Johnson’s government on Wednesday pushed through legislation to introduce a four-week national lockdown in England, despite resistance from more than 30 Conservative MPs who voted against the measures.
Under new regulations set to come into effect on Thursday and last until at least December 2, residents in England will be banned from mixing between households and encouraged to work from home where possible.
Non-essential shops will be forced to close along with pubs, bars and restaurants, with exceptions made for takeaways and food deliveries. But unlike the first nationwide lockdown, schools and universities will remain open.
The prime minister’s announcement on Saturday was met with disapproval from a large number of Conservative MPs, with the atmosphere among cabinet ministers described as “apoplectic” ahead of Wednesday’s vote.
However, by Tuesday the rebellion had shrunk to as few as 20 MPs, with many backbenchers said to have understood Mr Johnson’s hesitancy in introducing a national lockdown, as the coronavirus death count continued to creep up.
In total 32 Conservative MPs, mainly from the libertarian wing of the party, voted against the legislation which passed 516 votes to 38.
One of the rebels, Sir Charles Walker, Conservative MP for Broxbourne, said the government had “coerced” the public into accepting coronavirus measures through the use of “criminal and civil law”.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee, also voted against the legislation, voicing concern that Number 10 was “reaching too far into the private and family lives” of constituents.
He added: “I fully accept the sincerity of the prime minister and sincerity of the secretary of state in bringing forward the measures . . . and their belief that they are doing the right thing.”
“Nonetheless, I have to say that, in more than 23 years as a member of parliament, when I vote against this motion tonight, I will do so with greater conviction than I have in casting any vote in those 23 years.”
Former chief whip Mark Harper, Huw Merriman and Sir Mike Penning were also among the rebels. Finally, 21 Conservatives did not record a vote, including the former prime minister Theresa May.
Mr Johnson left the chamber to the sound of groans, as his most recent predecessor began to criticise the government’s use of scientific data.
“For many people, it looks as if the figures are chosen to support the policy rather than the policy being based on the figures,” she said.
Earlier in the day, during prime minister’s questions, Mr Johnson reiterated his intention to reopen the country when restrictions end next month.
He said: “These autumn measures to combat the surge will expire automatically on December 2, and we will then — I hope very much — be able to get this country going again, to get businesses and shops open again in the run-up to Christmas. But that depends on us doing our bit now to get the R rate down.”
But despite Mr Johnson’s optimism, there are concerns that the number of coronavirus infections and hospitalisations could spiral out of control this winter, placing more pressure on the health service.
NHS England announced it will enter into “level four”, the highest emergency band, on Wednesday evening. Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said the decision had been made in response to the rising number of coronavirus cases.
“Our job in the NHS is just to set out the, frankly indisputable, facts about the number of coronavirus patients we are looking after and the consequences if infection continues to grow,” he added.
His comments followed the news that the number of Covid-19 deaths reported in the UK rose nearly 100 to 492 in the last 24-hour period — the highest number since early May, from 397 on Tuesday, and 136 the previous day.
As of Wednesday the number of Covid-19 cases in the UK stood at 25,177, the highest since October 21.