New Covid rules on self-isolation have been enshrined in law until March, as Tory MPs warned Boris Johnson that restricting freedoms was a path “towards hell”.
The regulations forcing people to isolate for 10 days if they come into contact with someone who has the omicron variant or risk a fine of up to £10,000 – even if they are fully vaccinated – will not expire until March 24, under legislation passed by the Commons on Tuesday.
The measure prompted a major revolt of 33 Tory MPs, including former Conservative cabinet ministers Greg Clark, Jeremy Wright and Esther McVey, as well as Mark Harper, the former chief whip.
Tory MPs warned the self-isolation rules could lead to a new “pingdemic” that could result in healthy people being fined if they leave their homes.
Fears were raised that the threat of having to stay indoors for 10 days could prevent people from socialising while the Government carries out a new booster programme.
The Government has said it will review the self-isolation rules in three weeks. MPs are aware, however, that ministers have previously enshrined regulations for the pandemic in law and kept them in place for longer than initially envisaged.
Christopher Chope, the Conservative MP, claimed the regulations were “part of a scaremongering propaganda campaign that is really designed to restrict or stop interaction between social animals”.
The row erupted as Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, suggested that people should avoid socialising in the run up to Christmas – sparking suspicion among Tory MPs that further restrictions were likely.
Boris Johnson and Downing Street distanced themselves from the senior health adviser’s remarks, insisting they did not represent the Government’s policy.
The Prime Minister announced during a press conference that he wanted all adults to be offered a booster jab by the end of January. He also revealed that GPs will be paid more to perform the vaccinations.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, revealed eight new confirmed omicron cases had been identified in the UK, taking the total to 22. Of these, nine had been found in Scotland, which Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, said were all linked to a single “private event”.
The new rules on self-isolation have been enshrined in law for almost four months, despite no evidence so far that omicron is more dangerous than previous variants.
Two major vaccine manufacturers also said they thought the existing jabs would work against it to prevent severe disease.
Government accused of ‘tunnel vision’ approach to restrictions
Tory MPs vented their fury about the potential for a repeat “pingdemic” over the festive period.
Steve Brine, a former health minister, warned: “We are not just looking at a pingdemic in our economy and in our businesses. We are looking at a pingdemic that will devastate education again.”
Craig Mackinlay, a Tory backbencher, warned the isolation rules could deter people from going to a Christmas party or the pub, for fear of getting “pinged” before Christmas Day and having to miss out on seeing family and friends. He raised concerns of “mission creep” in restrictions.
Sir Desmond Swayne, another Conservative MP, argued that forcing double vaccinated people to isolate would remove an incentive for getting the booster jab, potentially harming the Government’s campaign to roll out third doses.
In an emotionally charged speech to the Commons, Steve Baker lambasted ministers for “taking away the public’s right to choose what they do” based on evidence that he claimed was “flimsy and uncertain”.
Accusing the Government of adopting a “tunnel vision” approach to restrictions, he said the latest measures raised essential questions about freedom.
“Are we empty vessels, mere autonoma, things to be managed? Or free spirits with a soul, people who deserve the dignity of choice?” he asked.
A committed Christian, Mr Baker added: “This is a fundamental choice between heading towards heaven and heading towards hell.”
Pledge that rules will not last ‘a day longer than is necessary’
Mr Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory politicians, first highlighted that the isolation rules would remain in law for far longer than the new rules on masks, which expire on December 20.
He told the Commons: “The self-isolation statutory instrument has no expiry day, which means it will run all the way until the main statutory instrument expires on March 24 2022. Why is that?”
Maggie Throup, the vaccines minister, said he made a “good point”. However, she pledged the Government would update the House on any plans to extend the measure and would not retain the regulations “any longer” than needed.
Her comments echoed Mr Javid’s vow this week that the new measures will not remain “a day longer than is necessary” if omicron is found to be no more dangerous than delta. He has said he will review all the new Covid measures after three weeks.
On Tuesday, a government source was scathing about the measure being enshrined in law for so long.
“I haven’t found a good reason for it, I was slightly surprised by that. It seems another sign of the Department for Health unnecessarily losing trust and goodwill with backbenchers,” the insider told The Telegraph.
However, others in government insisted the legal duration of the regulations resulted from the fact they simply updated existing legislation with that expiry date, while the mask regulations were introduced under new legislation allowing an earlier expiry date to be easily included.
One Whitehall source said all the isolation, mask and travel rules were viewed within Government as “one package” and insisted that ministers had provided “reassurance” that the entire package would be reviewed in three weeks’ time.
The source added of the isolation regulations: “It was all done at such intense speed to respond to the omicron threat. This will have been the quickest way that lawyers could find to put it into regulations, the easiest [legislatory] vehicle.”
The revolt of 33 Tory MPs outstripped an earlier rebellion on Tuesday over the new mask mandate, which was opposed by 20 Tory MPs.
Both measures passed easily through the Commons overall, with self-isolation rules backed 431 to 36, and face covering requirements for shops and public transport backed 434 to 23.