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Tories criticise scientists and ministers over lockdown extension

·5-min read

Furious Tories rounded on Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and the Government’s scientific advisers over the extension of coronavirus restrictions in England.

Conservatives cast doubt on the Prime Minister’s commitment that July 19 would be a “terminus” date for the lockdown after he was forced to postpone easing restrictions on June 21.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson was challenged by Tory MPs Philip Davies and William Wragg while Mr Hancock also faced a barrage of criticism over the delay.

Labour will back the extension so the Prime Minister will be spared a defeat when MPs vote on the road map delay later on Wednesday.

But the scale of opposition – on top of critical comments from Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg – underline the difficulties facing Mr Johnson.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Davies questioned why the Prime Minister was not trusting the “the common sense of the British people and his Conservative instincts of individual freedom and individual responsibility” rather than the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

The Prime Minister insisted he did not want to see Covid restrictions last forever but “a little more time” was needed to vaccinate millions more people to help combat the spread of the Delta variant.

Mr Wragg asked: “When can we expect the co-ordinated chorus of Sage members recommencing their media appearances to depress morale?”

He asked if Mr Johnson feared having to give another press conference to postpone “the return of our freedoms”.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Mr Johnson said: “I believe that academic and scientific freedom are an invaluable part of our country and I also note that my scientific colleagues would echo my sentiments that we need to learn to live with Covid.”

In a sign that Cabinet ministers have concerns about the extension, Commons leader Mr Rees-Mogg told his ConservativeHome podcast: “You can’t run society just to stop the hospitals being full, otherwise you’d never let us get in our cars and drive anywhere or do any of the other things that people want to do, so there has to be some proportionality.”

The vote on extending the lockdown came as:

– Health Secretary Mr Hancock announced care home staff in England will be required to have coronavirus vaccinations to protect residents as a similar move was being considered for NHS workers.

– Cabinet minister Liz Truss suggested the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation would not recommend routinely jabbing under-18s.

– Oxford vaccine expert Professor Sir Andrew Pollard said the “public health crisis is over” if Covid shots continue to offer high protection against hospital admission, even if the virus continues spreading in the community.

– The Prime Minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings published a WhatsApp message from Mr Johnson apparently describing Mr Hancock’s response to the pandemic as “totally f****** hopeless”.

– As of 9am on Wednesday, there had been a further 9,055 lab-confirmed cases in the UK – the first time the daily reported figure has been above 9,000 since February 25.

– The Government said a further nine people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, bringing the UK total by that measure to 127,926.

– Figures up to June 15 show 42,021,089 people have received a first dose of vaccine – a rise of 190,033 on the previous day – while 30,440,373 of them have also had a second jab, an increase of 230,666.

As MPs considered the extension to lockdown, Tory former minister Sir Desmond Swayne said: “I never believed that it was proportionate even from the outset for ministers to take such liberties with our liberty.

“I always thought it was wrong for them to take our freedoms, even though they believed that they were acting in our best interests in an emergency, but by any measure that emergency has now passed and yet freedoms are still withheld, and the Government will not allow us to assess for ourselves the risks that we are prepared to encounter in our ordinary everyday lives.”

Tory former chief whip Mark Harper, who chairs the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, said: “My worry, and the worry of others, is we’re going to get to this point in four weeks’ time and we’re just going to be back here all over again extending the restrictions.”

Mr Harper claimed to have seen official documents with “very detailed suggestions about what measures may continue” in future.

Once people have been offered vaccines “we must have an open society and proper ability for individuals to balance risks”, he said. “We cannot hold society captive”.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Sir Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the powerful Tory backbench 1922 Committee, said Sage members should not tour broadcast studios setting out their views about the choices facing ministers.

The experts should be given an ultimatum by the Prime Minister: “You can either advise me or you can advise the Today programme, Sky, Channel 4 but you can’t do both.

“You can either be a serious scientist at this moment in time, advising your government, or you can be a media talking head building a career outside Sage.”

He added: “We would not expect our generals to give a running commentary on a war, undermining politicians, it’s just not acceptable.”

Giving Labour’s support for the extension, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Delaying the road map by four weeks will hopefully relieve the pressure on hospitals… I think if we lifted all the restrictions now I fear that that could be akin to throwing petrol on a fire at this moment.”

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