Boris Johnson ordered urgent peace talks with Conservative rebels on Monday as anger grows over new coronavirus restrictions and claims that ministers are springing new laws on the country “by decree”.
Mr Johnson attempted to head off a rebellion by more than 50 Tory MPs, as the government announced tougher restrictions in north-east England and introduced new laws for tackling the virus without any consultation.
The MPs want the House of Commons to have a say before new restrictions are introduced. Their concerns deepened on Monday as ministers continued to tighten Covid-19 rules.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, announced that 2m people in households in seven council areas of north-east England, including Newcastle and Sunderland, would be barred from mixing indoors and in homes.
Meanwhile, the government slipped out a range of new offences under emergency coronavirus legislation that had not been mentioned by Mr Johnson when he announced the latest restrictions last week.
People can be hit with fines of up to £10,000 if they repeatedly leave self-isolation without permission. The new restrictions, which apply only to England, include a £1,000 fine for those who do not isolate when ordered to by NHS Test and Trace or by their local council.
The government has created a new offence for those who wrongly claim that someone else has tested positive for coronavirus. Employers who force or allow staff to come to work when they should be self-isolating will be liable for fines of up to £10,000.
Meanwhile, there are £4,000 fines for “recklessly” leaving isolation — in a way that puts other people in danger — rising to £10,000 for a second offence. Pub landlords will be fined £1,000 for allowing dancing on their property or playing music above 85 decibels.
There are also fines for hiding your family from test and trace or failing to tell your employer why you are at home. Mark Harper, former chief whip, said the government was ruling “by decree”.
In parliament Tory MPs claimed Mr Johnson’s scientific advisers were pushing him into taking draconian measures and were engaged in a “Project Fear”, which was harming the economy.
But behind the scenes Mr Johnson’s team attempted to reassure Tory rebels that the House of Commons would in future have more say over new Covid-19 restrictions.
The fact that the rebellion is led by Sir Graham Brady, chair of the backbench Tory 1922 committee, is a sign of the depth of concern among MPs at the scope of the new restrictions.
Talks between the rebels and chief whip Mark Spencer, leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mr Hancock took place on Monday afternoon to try to hammer out a compromise.
“I’m happy to report it was a cordial and constructive meeting,” Steve Baker, a former minister and leader of the rebel group, said. “I hope and expect we will reach a satisfactory agreement.”
Meanwhile, criticism of the measures already introduced by the government continued unabated.
Andy Burnham, Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said the 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants should be scrapped, claiming it meant that homes and supermarkets were “packed to the rafters” once bars closed.
Senior Tory MP Desmond Swayne said Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, and Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, were guilty of a “sackable offence” for producing what he claimed were “scaremongering” warnings that the number of Covid-19 cases was on a trajectory to hit 50,000 next month. He claimed that government scientific advisers were engaged in “Project Fear”.
Downing Street insisted it was striking the “right balance” but Lucy Allen, another Tory MP, said: “We need a sense of perspective. There is no need to impose indiscriminate, sometimes arbitrary or capricious restrictive measures on everyone.” John Redwood, a Thatcherite former cabinet minister, said: “The nation needs some hope.”
Across the country, local council leaders braced themselves for further restrictions. Steve Rotheram, Labour mayor of Liverpool city region, said he was concerned about rumours of a two-week closure of the hospitality industry in the north.
Meanwhile, civil leaders in London were braced for fresh restrictions after a spike in cases in some parts of east London. Across the capital in the week to September 25 there were 2,865 new confirmed cases, up from 1,906 the previous week.