Boris Johnson is trying to prevent a major Tory revolt by suggesting that his tough new Covid-19 rules could end in February.
The Prime Minister is promising a “sunset clause” on his three-tier system on February 3, with MPs getting a vote on restrictions at the end of January.
Many Tories are furious at the broad-brush approach to tiers, which will put 99% of England in the top two when the national lockdown ends on Wednesday.
Offering an olive branch, the PM said rules would automatically expire in law on February 3 with a parliamentary vote in January to renew them.
A Government source admitted ministers would have to reconsider their approach if the measures were defeated next year.
In a letter to lockdown-sceptic MPs, Mr Johnson said: “No Government or Parliament has had to grapple with issues of this difficulty and magnitude since the end of the Second World War.
“Disagreement on approach is natural, and I hope you recognise that the Government is seeking as far as possible to listen to criticism and respond positively to constructive proposals.
“I do believe that the strategy set out is a balanced approach, which helps protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, keeps children attending school, and lets the economy open up in a safe way, and the best way forward.
“There is every reason to hope and believe that the worst is nearly behind us, so now more than ever is the time to demonstrate unity and resolve.”
He also promised to publish data tomorrow on the lockdown’s economic impact, which had been demanded by MPs.
But Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned today that we risk a third wave “if we don’t get the balance right” on restrictions.
He refused to rule out a third lockdown next year if the tier system fails, saying: “We’re doing everything we can to avoid that.”
And a Government scientific adviser warned that “taking the brakes off” now could lead to disaster.
Professor Peter Openshaw said: “The rates are still too high, there’s too many cases coming into hospitals, too many dying.
“And if we take the brakes off at this stage, when the end is in sight, we would be making a huge mistake.
“We’ve all sacrificed so much to get the transmission rate down.
“With only a few months to go until vaccines start to have an effect, it would be a terrible mistake.”
But as the lockdown ends, Mr Johnson faces the most serious revolt of his premiership over the tiers system that will replace it.
Around 100 MPs have joined the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group and many could rebel in a vote on the plans on Tuesday.
The PM could be forced to rely on Labour votes to approve his plan tomorrow if enough of his own MPs desert him.
Labour will decide tomorrow whether to back it but Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said they “do not share the view of Tory backbenchers that you can just let the virus rip”.
However she warned that Labour’s support for tiers is “not unconditional”.
Swathes of the North and Midlands will be plunged into the toughest Tier 3 restrictions this week. Only the Scilly Isles, Cornwall and the Isle of Wight will be in the lowest Tier 1 category.
Places with the toughest restrictions were offered a glimmer of hope as the PM said the tiers would be reviewed on December 16, leaving it open for some areas to move to lighter restrictions on December 19.
An analysis by the Sunday Times revealed 16.4 million people live in 88 boroughs in Tier 3 that have a Covid-19 infection rate lower than some boroughs in Tier 2.
Meanwhile, new Christmas guidance revealed that youngsters will still be able to meet Santa Claus.
Grottos will be allowed to open in shops, garden centres and department stores in all tiers but social distancing guidelines mean that children cannot sit on Santa’s knee.
- More than 100 inmates were hit by Covid-19 in a day, in a mass outbreak at HMP Birmingham. A whistleblower blamed it on vending machines and showers not being sanitised properly.