Boris Johnson hit by huge Tory rebellion as coronavirus curbs pass

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LONDON — Boris Johnson suffered the biggest parliamentary rebellion of his premiership and had to rely on opposition support to pass plans for tighter coronavirus restrictions.

Some 98 Conservative MPs voted against the U.K. leader’s policy that will see a COVID pass — comprising either proof of vaccination or a negative test — required for entry to venues including nightclubs. The rebellion — which came as the government tries to contain the spread of the Omicron COVID variant — dwarfs the 80-seat House of Commons majority Johnson he won in 2019.

The measure passed thanks to the support of the opposition Labour Party, by 369 votes to 126. But the sheer scale of the rebellion reflects the mounting pressure the prime minister is facing from his own party over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting told Sky News in the aftermath of the vote that the result reflects “the shattered authority of Boris Johnson.”

Conservative MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said a leadership challenge to Johnson next year has now “got to be on the cards.” The senior Tory told Sky News: “He’s got to realize that and he’s got to change.”

Johnson has faced particular anger from members of his party in recent weeks over claims government staff enjoyed parties in the teeth of last year’s winter coronavirus curbs, as well as the government’s reimposition of coronavirus restrictions unpopular with the party rank-and-file.

MPs approved others measures in a bid to tackle the spread of Omicron: compulsory face coverings in most indoor settings (passed by 441 votes to 41); and compulsory vaccines for frontline NHS and social care staff from April 2022 (passed by 385 votes to 100).

Significant numbers of Conservative MPs rebelled in each vote. Louie French — elected as a Conservative MP in the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election under two weeks ago — was among those who voted against the government on vaccine passports.

Urging his colleagues to back the measures, Health Secretary Sajid Javid vowed he would never support mandatory vaccination beyond health service and care workers as he urged his colleagues to support the government.

He said 94,000 NHS staff have not been vaccinated, and that the latest safeguards were a “pragmatic” response to the current situation. “Even if severity is significantly lower, then the much higher transmissibility of Omicron means it still has the potential to overwhelm the NHS,” he warned.

Former Cabinet minister Mark Harper was among those to argue against tougher rules, saying “we have very quickly gone into panic and emergency mode” and accusing the government of raising the specter of “on-and-off seasonal restrictions forever.”

Some Labour MPs also raised concerns about the impact of mandatory jabs on the NHS workforce. 

Javid meanwhile announced the scrapping of the U.K.’s travel “red list,” admitting the curbs on travel were no longer effective against the transmission of Omicron. Stringent testing requirements will remain in place, however.

Britain’s implementation of fresh restrictions comes as the Omicron variant is showing explosive growth elsewhere in Europe. 

The variant of concern is expected to become the dominant strain in the Danish capital Copenhagen by midweek, Norway has just tightened restrictions after logging nearly a thousand cases, and Ireland says Omicron now accounts for 11 percent of positive tests.

The U.K. Health Security Agency confirmed Monday that it estimates the number of daily Omicron infections at around 200,000, well above the 4,713 registered cases.

Andrew McDonald and Douglas Busvine contributed reporting.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

Source: Politico