Coronavirus: Government accused of trying to ‘terrify’ public over COVID-19

The prime minister and government officials have been accused of trying to “terrify” the British public over coronavirus.

Conservative MPs voiced their disquiet with aspects of Boris Johnson’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in a lengthy Commons debate.

It comes ahead of a looming showdown over the government’s powers to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

MPs will vote on Wednesday on whether to renew the powers in the Coronavirus Act, with Downing Street battling to avoid what would be a damaging rebellion on the issue.

The PM is coming under pressure to give parliament more of a role in debating and voting on new coronavirus restrictions.

An amendment put forward by Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, has gained the support of dozens of Conservatives.

More than 50 Tories have signalled they could rebel against the government if the amendment is put to a vote, which would be enough to hand Mr Johnson a high-profile defeat if opposition parties all throw their collective weight behind it.

Ministers held talks with potential rebels on Wednesday evening in a bid to ward off a revolt.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, chief whip Mark Spencer and Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg met with them to try and address their concerns.

Former minister Steve Baker, who has given his backing to Sir Graham’s amendment, described the gathering as “cordial and constructive meeting”.

“I hope and expect we will reach a satisfactory agreement,” he said.

Mr Hancock told MPs in the Commons earlier that ministers were “looking at further ways to ensure the House can be properly involved in the process in advance where possible”.

The health secretary said he agreed that parliament should have the “appropriate level of scrutiny”, but this needed to be balanced with the need to ensure the government can “move fast where that is necessary”.

A senior government source has told Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby that Number 10 is confident the Brady amendment will not be selected by the Speaker for a vote.

“We’ve always said we’re happy to give more time to debate and discuss these things. It’s now clear the Brady amendment is out of scope and so will not be voted on,” they said.

But a senior Tory told Rigby: “The decision is the Speaker’s and I’m not sure he’ll share that view. If he’s clear there’s a majority for it (which there is), he’ll try to allow the House to vote on it.”

Either way, Monday’s Commons debate demonstrated that there is palpable unhappiness among some Conservative MPs around elements of the government’s coronavirus response.

Sir Desmond Swayne, a former minister, questioned if Mr Johnson had been “abducted by Dr Strangelove and reprogrammed by the SAGE [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] over to the dark side”, a reference to the 1964 satirical film about fears of a nuclear conflict during the Cold War.

He hit out at the government’s chief scientific and medical advisers for warning that 200 or more people could die each day by the middle of November if no action was taken to drive down the rate of infection.

“It was project fear, it was an attempt to terrify the British people, as if they haven’t been terrified enough,” Sir Desmond claimed, adding that the government’s response during the pandemic has been “disproportionate”.

“By decree, it has interfered in our private lives, and 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.

Telford MP Lucy Allan also criticised the briefing, saying it had “undermined public trust” by “pushing” a worst-case scenario without explaining the chances of it happening.

Ms Allan asked: “Was it designed to instil fear in order to control the public? Is that how we want to govern?”

Simon Clarke, another former minister, said a second national lockdown would be “untenable” and “wrong”, warning it would exact a “stark and serious” toll.

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Greg Clark, who is chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, said ministers “must embark on a clearly different course” by next spring.

“We can’t forever live in circumstances in which the way that we live our lives can be upended without notice,” he said.

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South Dorset MP Richard Drax echoed this, telling the Commons: “A major rethink is needed and fast before we do irreparable harm.

“This disease, like any other disease, is here to stay – whether we like it or not – and we must learn to live with it.”

Christchurch MP Sir Christopher Chope accused the government of “covert mission creep” over its use of secondary legislation to expand coronavirus regulations, while Nusrat Ghani, MP for Wealden, said she had “huge concerns about how the government wants to progress the extension of COVID laws going forward”.

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