A bleak warning that every hospital in England risks being overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases has failed to stem a backbench Conservative rebellion over tough new coronavirus restrictions.
Strict tiers will be imposed in England next week, as the current lockdown ends.
But dozens of Tory MPs are expected to refuse to back the move, in that could be a major challenge to Boris Johnson’s authority.
In a bid to quell the growing revolt, cabinet office minister Michael Gove urged MPs to “take responsibility for difficult decisions” to curb the spread of Covid-19.
He warned MPs that the virus was “no respecter of constituency boundaries” and hardships were “unfortunately necessary to protect every single one of us, no matter where we live” in an article in the Times.
Many Tory MPs are angry that much of England will be placed in the top two tiers, facing the toughest coronavirus restrictions, possibly until March.
Some want the system to be more targeted, allowing small areas with tiny infections levels to escape the system designed for areas with high infection levels.
But ministers say the county-wide system is clear and easily understood by the public.
They also warn that cases can quickly shoot up in areas which attract large numbers of visitors.
Following Mr Gove’s intervention, one Conservative MP questioned if the government’s strategy was working.
Craig Mackinlay also told BBC Breakfast he would favour a system of natural “self-regulation”, which he said would happen when people saw the R-rate in their local area begin to rise.
Mr Mackinlay, who said he would vote against the Tier system in the Commons next week, said: “Fundamentally, given that we’ve been through this before, we have to ask ourselves, is this the cure – is this actually working?
The MP for South Thanet, which has the second highest R-rate in the UK, added: “I think once areas see themselves going in the wrong direction, that actually has a very, very distinct effect on people’s behaviour.
“They almost self-regulate, they actually do take those space, hands, and all of those good things far more seriously, and I think that has just as much power in getting infection down the slope again as any of these rather draconian measures, which destroy businesses, particularly hospitality which is going to suffer perhaps permanently during this phase.”
Professor Neil Ferguson, one of the architects of the original lockdown in March, called for the public to use “individual judgment” over Christmas.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think the measures at Christmas – they do pose some risks and I think individual judgment is important in deciding whether to see elderly relatives.
“But I think they strike a balance – expanding the bubble system limits the extent to which if people adhere to that transmission can really take off.”
What tiers will be applied in January “will depend on what the data is showing” he added.
Meanwhile, Labour called for extra cash for parts of England under Tier 3, warning that they risked being stretched to “breaking point”.
Labour is urging the chancellor Rishi Sunak to extend its Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG) in Tier 3 areas.
The funding was given to local areas which entered Tier 3 earlier this autumn.
But the Chancellor has not announced an extension of the scheme ahead of the reintroduction of the tier system next week.
The cash is the equivalent of £20 per person in an area.
A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesman said the analysis did not take into account other support measures, including grants of up to £3,000 for businesses that are required to close due to Tier 3 restrictions.