England is at risk of a third wave of coronavirus in the new year if the right balance is not struck on restrictions, Dominic Raab has warned, as Downing Street faces an angry rebellion from Tory MPs on its strengthened tiers measures.
The foreign secretary also refused to rule out the prospect of a third nationwide lockdown next year. The Commons will vote on Tuesday on whether to approve the three-tier system replacing the national lockdown.
Boris Johnson wrote to Tory MPs on Saturday in an attempt to head off a potential rebellion, saying the new regulations will have a “sunset” clause meaning they will end on 3 February, will be reviewed every fortnight until then, and will only continue with MPs’ approval.
Further analysis of the health, economic and social impacts of Covid and the measures taken to suppress them will also be published before Tuesday’s vote, Johnson said.
Asked if the country may face a third wave in January and February if the process does not work and infection rates rise again, Raab told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr show on Sunday: “Well, there’s a risk of that if we don’t get the balance right, but so far the R level is coming down, and that’s really important. And that’s why we’re starting with the tiered approach, more restrictive than some people would like previously.”
Pressed on whether there could be another national lockdown early next year if the government does not get the behaviour it wants from people now and over Christmas, Raab said: “We’re doing everything we can do avoid that,” citing the government’s five criteria for assigning tier levels.
Explaining the government’s exit strategy from restrictions, he added: “We move to localised, we aim for that vaccine being distributed in the spring. And the two things that are crucial are a tiered approach, from a position of strength and confidence, with areas coming down the level of restrictions once it’s safe and responsible to do so, and the community-wide testing … We’ve seen in Liverpool how that can really be a force for change, they’ve now come into a lower-level tier and that’s great credit to the authorities up there working with the government and, frankly, the forbearance and the stamina of the people in that area. We need to see that nationwide, that’s how we get to spring and a much better place.”
Labour has not yet disclosed how it will vote on the measures, although the shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, told Marr: “We very much share the view that there need to be public restrictions.” However, she stressed Labour was seeking “clarity” about the new tier system and that her party’s support was “not unconditional”.
On Thursday, the government announced that nearly 99% of the population in England would enter the highest two tiers when the measures are due to come into effect on 2 December, where tougher restrictions include a ban on indoor mixing between households unless support bubbles exist. There is anger among Conservative MPs who argue the new system is too blunt, by lumping together whole counties or areas into a single tier when there are localised distinctions in the prevalence of the virus.
Asked if the government was thinking of breaking down regions into smaller areas so restrictions could be lifted earlier, Raab told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “Well, we’ll have a review every two weeks and of course there’ll be, I’m sure, debate this week on it.“We always look at all things, but the problem is … you’ve got to get the geographic size sufficiently effective that you don’t find the smaller enclaves of lower-level virus shooting up because they’re not subject to the restrictions in the higher level areas around them.”