Boris Johnson is under pressure to speed up his roadmap back to normality ahead of key Commons votes next Thursday on extending coronavirus measures.
The prime minister is preparing for another showdown with backbenchers as the measures need to be re-endorsed for up to another six months, well past the final planned opening up of society pencilled in for 21 June.
While some Tory backbenchers are holding off threatening to vote against the government, they are looking for Johnson to prove why the same pace of easing lockdown should be maintained given the speed so far of the vaccination programme.
Mark Harper, the chair of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said: “My view, and the view of I think quite a lot of people, is if you’re going to renew stuff until September, you’d better have a very good reason, rather than assuming everyone is going to just go along with it.”
Picking up on Johnson’s promise to use data not dates to determine the pace of unlocking, Harper said deaths, hospitalisations and infection rates had fallen “pretty significantly”, and added: “If data not dates is going to mean anything then I think the government is going to have to bring some things forward or explain why things can’t change earlier. It will look increasingly ridiculous otherwise.”
Harper said the modelling assumptions of the roadmap that the prime minister unveiled on 22 February “weren’t unreasonable assumptions when they were made, but they are all unreasonable assumptions now”.
He pointed to the predication that vaccine take-up would be about 85%, when he said in fact it was closer to 95%. “The government should redo the modelling based on the recent, actual numbers,” he said.
“A lot of colleagues are very concerned about goalposts moving,” Harper added, referring to worry among some MPs that restrictions are being kept in force to subdue coronavirus case numbers rather than making sure the NHS is not overwhelmed.
Two important documents regarding the Covid crisis will be voted on next week, as they are due to expire at the end of March and the Commons goes into Easter recess on 25 March.
The first is the Coronavirus Act, which was designed to put the government on an emergency footing and let it cut lots of red tape, for example with the health and social care workforce to allow recently retired staff to return to work, and let people and businesses access the various streams of financial support.
The second is the set of coronavirus regulations made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act, which deal with the details of restrictions.
The leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has confirmed that both questions will be voted on on Thursday.
With an 80-strong majority in the Commons and Labour offering its continued support for most restrictions, there is no chance Johnson will be defeated in the votes. But that has not stopped grumbles about the government’s handling of its powers.
“They should give us really a week of analysis before the vote,” one Tory MP said, frustrated that the new regulations had not yet been published. They added of ministers: “If it looks like they’re unnecessarily imposing restrictions that actually are not justified then how can any of us vote for that?”
The former attorney general Dominic Grieve, who lost the Conservative whip before he left parliament in 2019, said the powers given to ministers were excessive and there were inherent flaws.
He highlighted Matt Hancock’s announcement last month that anyone arriving in the UK who filled in their passenger locator form incorrectly could face a 10-year jail sentence as one of the legal issues that “troubles” him.
“I do start to wonder what the law officers are actually doing these days,” he said. “Because it doesn’t seem to me that they are responding appropriately or correctly in trying to make sure government acts in propriety. The executive should have enough systems of checks and balances in it to try to prevent this from happening.”
Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s press secretary, when pressed on some Tory MPs’ concerns, said they had all been able to study the details of the roadmap out of lockdown “for quite some time”.
“It has a cautious but irreversible direction of travel towards 21 June when hopefully all restrictions are lifted,” she said.