Health Secretary Matt Hancock
Mr Hancock made his pledge as the Government inched towards a deal with rebel Tory MPs demanding increased parliamentary scrutiny over Boris Johnson’s coronavirus clampdown. While agreeing to give the Commons a greater say over new rules while reserving the right to act swiftly to impose restrictions, the Health Secretary said: “Sometimes in this pandemic we have to move fast, and we may need to do so again. The challenge we have in this House is how to ensure proper scrutiny while also being able, when necessary, to move fast in response to the virus. That is the challenge that collectively we all face.”
He also warned MPs there was no “simple trade off” between keeping people safe and protecting “liberty and livelihoods.”
Mr Hancock said: “The exponential growth of the virus means in reality there are only two parts, either to control the virus or let it slip.
“Because once the virus is growing it accelerates and I am convinced that no matter how effective we protect the vulnerable – and, of course, protect them we must – letting the virus rip would leave a death toll too big to bear.”
A leading rebel last night signalled Tory backbenchers were ready to compromise with the Government in the row.
Former Tory minister Steve Baker said he and other colleagues had a “constructive meeting” with senior Government figures over their concerns about scrutiny of the COVID-19 regulations.
He said: “We’re into a different phase of the disease. It really is time to reach an agreement. I’m very happy to say we’ve just had a constructive meeting with the Secretary of State, the Chief Whip and the Leader of the Commons and it really is time to reach a constructive way forward.
“I know it’s inconvenient for ministers to come to the House before they take away people’s liberties, but what I’d say to ministers is it is supposed to be. It is what keeps us a free people.”
Ministers and rebel ringleaders held talks following the threat of a revolt by dozens of Tory backbenchers tomorrow in a vote about renewing the Government’s powers to impose restrictions without parliamentary approval.
More than 100 Tory MPs were poised to wipe out Mr Johnson’s 80-strong Commons majority by backing an amendment to the renewal of coronavirus regulations tabled by senior Tory Sir Graham Brady seeking to trigger Commons votes before new rules are introduced.
In passionate scenes in the Commons yesterday, a string of Conservative backbenchers claimed the Prime Minister’s restrictions to try to control the pandemic had gone too far and threatened excessive damage to the economy.
Tory backbencher Sir Desmond Swayne claimed Mr Johnson had been “abducted by Dr Strangelove” and called for Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty to be sacked for attempting to “terrify” the public.
“I believe that the Government’s response had been disproportionate.
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“By decree, it has interfered in our private lives and in our family lives telling us who we may meet, when we may meet them and what we must wear when we meet them,” he said.
In a swipe at the Government’s medical advisers, Sir Desmond added: “I am left wondering if the Prime Minister hasn’t been abducted by Dr Strangelove and reprogrammed.”
Sir Desmond said that the chief medical officer and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance should have been seen as committing “a sacking offence” when publishing recent projections predicting up to 50,000 deaths if further restrictions were not imposed.
“It was project fear. It was an attempt to terrify the British people, as if they haven’t been terrified enough,” Sir Desmond said.
“I don’t underestimate for one moment the horrible nature of this disease and its post viral syndrome.
“But in terms of the United Kingdom’s killers it is 24th in the league.”
Lucy Allen, another Tory MP, said: “Long-term, lockdown is not a solution, it is not living with COVID, in fact in many ways, it’s hiding from COVID, it’s simply hoping it will go away.”
She added: “We need a sense of perspective. The measures we introduce on the whole population need to be proportionate to the risk.
“So now we can be smarter and more targeted in our quest to prevent avoidable deaths. There is no need to impose indiscriminate, sometimes arbitrary or capricious restrictive measures on everyone.”
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Former Tory minister Sir Christopher Chope accused the Government of “covert mission creep”.
He said: “I’m not yet persuaded that I need to support the continuation of the Coronavirus Act. And why am I not persuaded of that? Because the Government is guilty of covert mission creep.”
Downing Street officials insisted the Government need to be able to respond swiftly to coronavirus surges when imposing restrictions,
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “It’s absolutely vital that we can take action to stop the virus spreading and protect the NHS from a second wave and to save lives.
“We will continue to keep Parliament updated on the latest data and scientific advice on the virus and work in advance with parliamentary colleagues wherever that is possible.
“The Prime Minister said himself last week that in addition to the regular statements and debates MPs would be able to question the Government’s scientific advisers more regularly, gain access to data about their constituency and also have daily calls with the paymaster general for updates.”
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle could also let the Government off the hook by refusing to allow the amendment to be debated and voted on.
Ministers believe regulations under an existing Act of Parliament cannot be amended like a Bill.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “In terms of the amendment, that’s a decision for the Speaker. We know how important it is that both Houses have the opportunity to debate and scrutinize all of the lockdown regulations.
“If they’re not approved by both houses within 28 days then they lapse.”