An influential Conservative MP has called on Boris Johnson to lift all restrictions on Covid-19 by the end of this month or to face a mass insurgency within his party and the prospect of a leadership challenge later this year.
Mark Harper, president of the Tory Covid Recovery Group, which is skeptical of isolation, said Johnson should announce by January 26 – when most current rules expire – that he will repeal them and never return them.
The former Tory whip chief told the Financial Times that Johnson could face a leadership challenge after the May local elections if he does not change the way he acts and prove he is still an electoral advantage.
Harper said that after the expiration of the existing rules of Plan B – especially working from home, wearing masks in public places and passes for Covid – Johnson should swear that he will never return, even if new variants appear.
“The problem is that he kind of wants to agree with us, and then he says he wants to keep the restrictions in reserve or he won’t rule them out,” Harper said. “It simply came to our notice then.
“If I were running a catering business, I would be very nervous about investing, developing a business, taking any risk because I literally have no idea what’s going to happen.”
Harper admits that Covid will become endemic in society, but he wants Johnson to deal with it with a new incentive to vaccinate indecisive people, by creating special hospital wards and treatments, not by closure.
“At some point you have to say, whatever happens, whatever variants come up, we won’t respond by closing parts of the country,” he said. “It’s not a viable position.”
Asked when Johnson should officially declare an end to Covid’s restrictions, Harper said: “If it’s not now, when will it be?”
He warned that Johnson would face an even bigger uprising than the one in December, when nearly 100 Tory lawmakers voted against Covid Pass, if Johnson asked lawmakers to extend Plan B measures after Jan. 26.
“I think there will be more people against it,” he said. “I think the intellectual argument is even weaker now.” He wants the remaining self-isolation laws, which expire in March, to be replaced by a voluntary approach.
Harper, who unsuccessfully fought Johnson for the leadership of the Tories in 2019, denied that the CRG, with an estimated 70-80 members, is becoming a party within the party.
He said Tory MPs and voters – including those who elected a Liberal Democrat MP in the by-elections in North Shropshire last month – wanted to see a change in “how the prime minister runs the government”.
“What happens depends on whether he works differently,” he said. “Whether we see appropriate debates in government, that the government is acting in the right conservative direction – where you are not asking the state for a solution to everything – and trying to keep public spending under control.”
Asked if he thought Johnson would be in trouble if he didn’t change, and the Tories did poorly in the local election in May, Harper said, “I have.” But he added: “It’s in his hands.”
He said: “Conservative MPs will ask: will I keep my seat? They will look at the polls and consider who is the person who can best help them keep their seats.
“Conservative MPs have asked themselves this question in the past and decided that they must do something about it. The prime ministers have a performance contract. ”
Nadhim Zahawi, secretary of education, said on Sunday that Britain was making the transition from “pandemic to endemic”, but agreed that “the next two weeks will be uneven”.
Zahawi said it would “certainly help” if the minimum period of isolation was further reduced from seven to five days, but that this would only happen on the advice of the British Health Agency.
The minister also told the BBC that there is no immediate possibility that the government will reduce free testing. “We are not calling for an end to free lateral flow tests,” he said.