Senior ministers are signalling a rethink of the hugely unpopular 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants after Sir Keir Starmer gave a hint that Labour might join Tory MPs in inflicting a Commons defeat on the measure.
The chances of the Government losing a key vote rose significantly after the Labour leader challenged Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions to explain the “scientific basis” for a 10pm cutoff.
Among ideas now under discussion in Whitehall are a later closing time, a drinking-up period, and measures designed to disperse customers more slowly from premises to avoid crowding on pavements and public transport.
During PMQs, Sir Keir urged Mr Johnson to publish the science or review the policy before MPs vote on the issue next week.
He said: “One question is now screaming out – is there a scientific basis for the 10pm rule? The public deserve to know, Parliament deserves to know… if there is, why doesn’t the government do itself a favour and publish it?
“If not, why doesn’t the Government review the rule?”
Asked if he would commit to publishing the scientific data, Mr Johnson replied: “The basis on which we set it… is to reduce the spread of the virus.”
One senior Tory backbencher said rebels had decided to give the Government a breathing space over the next few days to consider proposals ahead of a Commons debate and a vote which is expected next week.
Seventeen MPs last night voted against the Rule of Six in what one MP called “a shot across the bows” to show they are serious about inflicting a defeat if the issue is not resolved.
One of them, Sir Robert Syms, told the Standard there were signals of a compromise being in the air. “I think it is possible because over the past few days I have chatted to ministers and they all acknowledge that there is a problem,” he said.
“There would be quite a lot of Conservative members and Opposition members who would vote against it when it eventually comes back to the Commons. If they can put a bit more flexibility into the rule, that would make a difference.”
Former chief whip Mark Harper said: “I want the Government to succeed with evidence-based policies that actually work. The 10pm curfew does not appear to be supported by any evidence at all that it’s effective. The Government should think again.”
Sir Charles Walker, vice-chair of the 1922 Committee which represents backbenchers, said: “It is difficult to understand why the risk of catching Covid-19 in a restaurant is greater at 10:01 pm than it was at 9:59pm or, for that matter, at 8:00pm.”
A senior Conservative supporting the revolt said there were enough Tory rebels, including abstentions, to defeat the Government unless ministers give ground. “I don’t think any of us need to fear angry letters from constituents if we hold our nerve on this,” said the senior MP. “Ministers have not engaged enough in the past but if they come back with something sensible, we will support them.”
Among measures being considered are turning 10pm into a “last orders” deadline rather than a closing time, and giving customers more time to disperse. This could allow restaurants to have two sittings and stop pubs emptying at the same time, easing crowds at stations and pavements. A later time might avoid customers carrying on drinking at home with off-licence sales. Staggered closing times are being considered but officials say there are problems choosing which pubs would close first.
Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson described the 10pm curfew as having “the wrong effect” and said it should be down to local authorities to work with businesses in the area. “It’s about common sense,” he told ITV.
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss defended the 10pm rule on Today. “Well, the reason that rule has been put in is that as the evening wears on, and people become more inebriated, they are less likely to observe the social distancing measures,” she said. “That measure has been brought in to try and restrict the spread of the disease.”
Also during PMQs, Sir Keir said there was a “lack of clarity” over why restrictions were not being imposed in southern areas – such as Hillingdon in the PM’s own west London constituency – despite having higher infection rates than some areas already under local lockdown.
He said: “For example, in the Prime Minister’s own local authority Hillingdon, today there are 62 cases per 100,000 yet no local restrictions. But in 20 local areas across England, restrictions were imposed when infection rates were much lower. In Kirklees it was just 29 per 100,000.
“Local communities, Prime Minister, genuinely don’t understand these differences. Can he please explain for them?”
Mr Johnson replied: “I wish I could pretend that everything was going to be rosy in the Midlands or indeed in London where, alas, we are also seeing infections rise. That is why we need a concerted national effort, we need to follow the guidance, we need hands, face, space, get a test if you have symptoms and obey the rule of six.”