England Votes to End Lockdown in Favor of New Coronavirus Measures

England Votes to End Lockdown in Favor of New Coronavirus
Measures 1

LONDON — Much of England will swap lockdown for less stringent coronavirus restrictions, after Parliament approved new rules on Tuesday despite a substantial revolt among lawmakers in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.

The rebellion, by lawmakers who want to go farther in easing the limits on public life, underscored the rising tide of discontent among Mr. Johnson’s own members of Parliament over his handling of the pandemic, exacerbated by fears that the curbs could lay waste to large swathes of the hospitality industry.

Caught between the competing demands of this vocal faction of his lawmakers, and those of his more cautious scientific advisers, Mr. Johnson opted to keep stringent measures in place, including restrictions on many pubs and restaurants.

From Wednesday there will be some relaxation from the lockdown in all areas, as all stores, gyms, and hairdressers will be allowed to reopen. Religious services and weddings can restart, and limited numbers of spectators will be allowed at some outdoor sporting events.

But England will return to a system under which coronavirus restrictions differ from place to place, with areas of the country divided into three “tiers” based on an assessment of the coronavirus risks in each one. That is similar to the framework in place earlier in the year, which failed to prevent a second wave of the pandemic or avert last month’s lockdown.

Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

So this time — and to the anger of many Conservative lawmakers — almost all of England will be in the top two tiers, placing significant restrictions on the hospitality trade in areas where around 55 million people live. The governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own coronavirus rules.

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A large part of England, home to around 23 million people, will be in the strictest tier, where pubs and restaurants will be shut except for takeout service.

In regions placed in the middle tier, including London, pubs will only be able to serve alcohol to customers who order a “substantial meal” — a condition that the government has struggled to explain when asked which types of food qualify.

As well as tripping up ministers, the debate over such loopholes has underscored the extent to which the state is dictating the minutiae of daily life, something that makes libertarian Conservative lawmakers distinctly queasy.

On Tuesday, critics in Parliament included several mainstays of the Conservative establishment like Graham Brady, who chairs an influential group of lawmakers.

“If government is to take away fundamental liberties of the people whom we represent they must illustrate beyond question they are acting in a way that is both proportionate and absolutely necessary,” said Mr. Brady, before concluding that the government had “failed to make that compelling case.”

His comments came after Mr. Johnson sought to placate critics, arguing that with the arrival of the vaccine on the horizon, “there is an end in sight,” but adding: “we cannot afford to relax, especially during the cold months of winter.”

Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The outcome of Tuesday’s vote in Parliament, which Mr. Johnson won by 291 to 78 was never in doubt after a decision by the opposition Labour Party to abstain.

Presented with a take-it-or-leave-it offer, Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer, told his lawmakers not to vote, saying that he did not want to stop the only set of restrictions available and therefore would not vote against them. He also said he did not want to endorse measures he described as insufficient and likely to fail. Mr. Starmer, who has recently ramped up criticism of the government’s handling on the pandemic, also called for more financial support for those struggling from the economic fallout.

Surveys generally show the public supports tough measures to control the spread of the virus and prevent the health service being overwhelmed, and Mr. Johnson’s government is hardly unique in the dilemmas it faces.

After a new rise of infections in Wales, all pubs will be banned from serving alcohol, starting on Friday, with the hospitality sector restricted by a 6 p.m. curfew.

Yet the scale of the Conservative revolt served a warning to Mr. Johnson, denting the authority of a government whose majority in Parliament looks less than solid only a year after he won a landslide election victory.

The rebellion on Tuesday was bigger than one last month when 34 Conservative lawmakers voted against the lockdown measures.

Many Conservative lawmakers had demanded an assessment of the economic impact of the new restrictions but were dissatisfied with a subsequent government document that they felt was largely a rehash of material already published.

Aside from those who object to the new rules on libertarian grounds, several Conservative lawmakers disputed decisions to place the areas they represent in tier three of the restrictions, with the most stringent curbs.

Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

The next highest category, tier two, where pubs can reopen but can only serve alcohol alongside a substantial meal, effectively forces bars that do not offer food to close.

But those rules have also prompted a lively debate about whether pubs can serve drinks alongside some less sophisticated British staples, including a Scotch egg — a boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat, coated in bread crumbs and then deep-fried.

Questioned on this topic, one minister, George Eustice, said on Monday that the Scotch egg would qualify as a substantial meal. Then on Tuesday, his cabinet colleague Michael Gove referred to it as a starter — rather than a main course — only to appear to contradict himself in another interview and suggest that it passed the pub meal test.

The loophole for pub goers was seized on by the Sun newspaper, which predicted what many drinkers would order when pubs finally open in tier two areas on Wednesday.

“Ten pints of lager … and a Scotch egg please,” read its banner headline.

Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

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