A Tory Cabinet minister has claimed areas can “go down a tier in time for Christmas” – despite experts appearing to suggest otherwise.
Robert Jenrick made the surprise pledge as fury mounts at 99% of England being put in the toughest rules – with up to 70 Tory MPs tipped to rebel next week.
32.2million people will be in Tier 2 and 23.3million will be in Tier 3, both of which ban indoor socialising.
Apart from a 5-day Christmas break the tier system will be in place from Wednesday until March, with weekly reviews of which area goes where.
Mr Jenrick today insisted he would “listen to the views” of local councils despite them having no right of appeal against the tiers.
Moving to dampen the revolt, the Communities Secretary told BBC Breakfast: “There’s a number of places which are quite finely balanced across the country today, [where] there was a strong case to be in a tier that’s one degree lower than where they’ve ended up.
“But on a balanced judgement they were in the tier above.
“So in those places and perhaps others in the country, if people do follow the rules, if we do make the tiered system work, there’s every reason to believe that they could de-escalate and go down a tier in time for Christmas.”
Yet Mr Jenrick’s comments appear to contradict Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, who last night said areas can only drop to Tier 1 if officials are “very confident indeed”.
Prof Whitty told a No10 press conference: “Tier 2 looks as if it’s strong enough to hold the line, so stop things rising, but not reliably to pull things down.
“Tier 3 we think based on previous experiences is strong enough to pull things down from a higher peak.”
The medical expert said he hoped ”in some months to come, possibly in some weeks to come, we’ll be in a situation where more places could go into Tier 1″.
But he added: ”We should not do that until we’re confident because the experience of Tier 1 previously was, and it hasn’t really changed, is that if you’re in Tier 1, the rate starts to go up.”
Mr Jenrick’s comments also contradict a government source who told The Times: “I would not expect anyone to change tier until we’re into the new year.”
And Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned there would be limited scope for easing controls so quickly.
“I think that is quite an early time to be able to see what the effect has been. I think we will still be seeing the effect of the lockdown at that point in time,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I can’t imagine there will be huge changes at that point, just simply because I don’t think we will have accumulated much data by then.”
Mr Jenrick appeared to be echoing Boris Johnson, who last night told worst-hit areas “your tier is not your destiny”.
The Prime Minister said harsher measures would “open a path for areas to move down the scale, as soon as the situation improves”, pointing to mass testing as the key.
Yet Mr Jenrick today accepted that not all 23million people in Tier 3 will be able to get promised mass testing at the same time.
“If all of the country that’s in Tier 3 wanted to do it, then we would work on a priority basis,” he told Sky News.
Prof Whitty last night said he expected areas to be able to “walk out of” the higher tiers ”little by little” – but only after a vaccine is approved.
While a vaccine could be approved by Christmas, even in the best case scenario, the government does not expect more than 2.5million people to be able to get their first jab before the new year.
It comes as a Tory revolt mounts against the restrictions, which will go to a formal Commons vote on Monday or Tuesday ahead of taking force at 12.01am on Wednesday.
Steve Baker of the lockdown sceptic Covid Recovery Group said: “The authoritarianism at work is truly appalling.” Ally Richard Drax said: “We need a new strategy based on common sense, not fear and more fear!”
Damian Green, whose constituents in Ashford, Kent, have leapfrogged from Tier 1 to Tier 3, told Times Radio: “I can tell from my email inbox during the course of of yesterday, that they are very angry indeed. And they just think it’s just not fair.”
Mr Jenrick said: “It doesn’t surprise me that Conservatives find restrictions on individual liberty or on small businesses very difficult to stomach.”
Any Tory revolt is not expected to defeat the government.
While Labour will only decide its position formally next week, it is expected to either vote for the tiers or abstain on them – guaranteeing success for Boris Johnson.