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5 November 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 11:13am

There’s a valuable lesson in the Conservative rebellion against lockdown

Mark Harper's concerns about the government's data on NHS capacity show the urgent need for Boris Johnson to demonstrate his working.

By Ailbhe Rea

England entered a second national lockdown this morning at midnight, after MPs voted yesterday to approve the measures by a margin of 516 to 38.

It was not the great rebellion of Conservative MPs that had been touted by some in the days leading up to the vote, but a significant moment nonetheless. Objections and concerns came at the Prime Minister from different flanks of his party: not only from the usual suspects (Graham Brady, Iain Duncan Smith and others) with concerns over the infringement on civil liberties; but also from Theresa May, who urged publication of the government’s economic assessment of the impact of lockdown, and cautioned that the move will “shatter livelihoods”. She later abstained on the motion.

The most interesting and, arguably, well-reasoned objection came from Mark Harper, the chief whip under David Cameron and a one-time candidate for party leader, who rebelled against the government whip for only the second time in his parliamentary career. He argued that he wasn’t convinced of the case for lockdown from the evidence the government had published, noting that some of the graphs used data that were more than three weeks old and that demonstrably overstated where we would be in terms of cases numbers by now.

Most interesting, in my view, was his entirely correct observation that the projections that the NHS could be overrun by Christmas, and within weeks in certain regions, were not included in the press conference on Saturday, nor officially published. These projections were shown to the coronavirus “quad” committee (Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove and advisers) and subsequently leaked as the basis for the government’s urgent move to a tougher lockdown after weeks of saying otherwise. This was plainly the data that prompted Johnson to act and spooked Sunak to concede, but it hasn’t been used in official government briefings. In other words, the public hasn’t able to take the same journey as our leaders and reach the same conclusion: we were presented with other data at the press conference, which had been assembled, one assumes, retrospectively and hastily. It painted an alarming picture, but it wasn’t exactly the same basis on which the government took the decision to lockdown.

[See also: Tory MPs dislike Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 strategy but they don’t have an alternative]

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Unlike Harper, I don’t think this is a reason to doubt that the health service would be at serious risk of exceeding capacity if further restrictions weren’t implemented, or, even if it wouldn’t be overrun, that that would be a risk worth taking. This is also the Prime Minister’s judgement. “As Prime Minister, when I am confronted with data that projects our NHS could even collapse, with deaths in this second wave potentially exceeding those of the first… I am not prepared to take the risk with the lives of the British people,” Boris Johnson said on 4 November, emphasising that, despite objections to the data used in the press conference over the weekend, scientific advice has been “unanimous” that the risk of the NHS being in “extraordinary trouble” by December is “extraordinarily high”, and some hospitals already have higher numbers of Covid patients than they did during the first wave.

But Harper is entirely right to highlight the confusion and damage to public confidence that comes from not letting people in on the decision-making process as much as possible. The greatest case for the need for a second lockdown in England is that Johnson, a man loath to take an unpopular decision and with no political inclination to restrict liberties and the economy in such a way, has been convinced of the need to do so. But he needs to be even more open with the data driving his decisions. Keeping an intelligent, increasingly sceptical public on side is sensible; as is doing something about the objections on his own backbenches.

[See also: Stephen Bush on Nigel Farage’s anti-lockdown party]

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