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Boris Johnson faces growing Tory backlash over Covid restrictions

Downing Street is facing a mounting backlash from Tory MPs over its new “rule of six” law, including its refusal to follow Scotland and Wales in exempting younger children, amid reports that cabinet ministers were split over the measures.

Boris Johnson unveiled new rules on Wednesday to replace existing guidance and make it illegal for groups of more than six to gather indoors or outdoors in England from Monday, slashing the current legal limit of 30, following a surge in Covid-19 cases.

But, announcing Scotland’s own version of the new measures on Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon said under-12s would be exempt and, on Friday, the Welsh government made the same move for under-11s.

The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, said groups of up to 30 could continue to meet outdoors because “we see no evidence here that coronavirus is being transmitted between people when they meet in the fresh air”.

It has prompted calls from Tory MPs, some of whom fear the rules are too draconian and risk criminalising people for exercising basic freedoms, to call for a rethink.

It comes as reports claimed cabinet ministers were split over the measures, with some calling for a higher limit of eight or more at a crunch meeting of the coronavirus subcommittee on Tuesday. However, Downing Street insisted the decision was agreed by the cabinet committee, with the support of England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance.

Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, told the Guardian the government should exempt under-12s. “One of the things we know about Covid-19 is that children are less susceptible to it and appear to be less likely to spread it,” he said.

“It is therefore entirely rational to exempt younger children from these measures. It should be an overriding principle for government that whatever restrictions on people’s freedoms are put in place, they should be kept to the minimum that is necessary at all times.

“This would seem to be a sensible way of reducing the burden on families and allowing normal social interaction for young children. It cannot make sense for children to be allowed to spend all day in the classroom with their friends but not to meet them in the park after school.”

The former Tory minister Steve Baker was also urging the government to change course. “Not exempting under-12s will be untenable,” he told the Guardian.

Speaking separately to LBC on Friday morning, Baker also called for a move to a voluntary system without enforcement powers. “I think these legal conditions are no state for a free people to be living under,” he said, adding that the “scrutiny of these very draconian rules has been wholly inadequate”. Asked how much dissent he thought might be brewing among the Conservative ranks, Baker replied: “Well, I’m afraid a lot.”

He added: “I think, overwhelmingly, the Conservative backbenches will be on my side of the argument. And I’m also advised that the cabinet has a great degree of agreement with the position I’m taking.”

The former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith told the Daily Telegraph that children should not be counted “below a certain age”. One cabinet minister told the newspaper that they thought it was “worth considering” exempting children from the six-person limit.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, tweeted on Friday: “I think children should be exempt from the ‘rule of six’ in England, as is the case in Scotland and Wales. Playing with other children is a developmentally crucial activity, and shouldn’t be made illegal.”

Other scientists remain cautious. Sage member John Edmunds, epidemiologist and professor at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “One of the more remarkable features of this epidemic, is that we still don’t really know how infectious children are to others. This is partly because schools have been closed since March.

“With the return of schools we should start to learn a lot more. Given the increase in cases over recent weeks (when schools were still on their summer breaks) it is prudent to include children in this ‘rule of 6’ at the moment. If we learn more about the risk of transmission to and from children over the coming weeks then we should re-evaluate this.”

His fellow Sage member Prof Andrew Hayward, director of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said: “Children are mixing in large groups of more than six in schools in order to ensure their education can resume. Outside of educational settings there is less necessity for children to mix in groups of more than six and sticking to the rule of six outside of school will reduce opportunities for transmission.”

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, said: “The Liberal Democrats have always trusted the science, but people have a right to know why children under the age of 12 don’t count for complying with the rule of six in Wales and Scotland but do in England. If the government was more transparent, people would have far more confidence in them.”

Asked whether the government was thinking about exempting children from the new measures, the prime minister’s official spokesman said on Friday: “We looked at all of the evidence in advance of the decision that was reached on Wednesday and it was decided to proceed with a rule of six that applies to all ages. As I say, what we have done is ensure that the rules have been simplified and strengthened so that they are easier to understand.”

Read the original article at The Guardian

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