Boris Johnson has suffered the biggest Conservative rebellion since the 2019 general election as almost 100 Tory MPs opposed the introduction of COVID certificates for nightclubs and large events in England.
In a House of Commons vote that immediately raised further questions over the prime minister’s leadership, more than a quarter of Tory MPs opposed a key measure of Mr Johnson’s “Plan B” for dealing with COVID infections this winter.
However, despite the large Conservative rebellion, the Commons approved the tougher COVID restrictions for England in the wake of the discovery of the Omicron variant, as Labour voted in favour of the new measures.
In a series of Commons votes on Tuesday night, a majority of MPs approved:
• The extension of mandatory face mask wearing to most public indoor venues in England;
• The mandatory use of the NHS COVID pass for entry into nightclubs and large events;
• The relaxation of self-isolation rules for those who are a contact of an Omicron case, with the use of daily testing instead;
• Compulsory COVID vaccinations for frontline NHS and social care staff.
Mr Johnson, who was already facing Tory anger over allegations of Christmas parties in Downing Street last year in breach of COVID rules, will be further buffeted by the size of Tuesday night’s rebellion.
The revolt. which came from a variety of factions within the Tory party, was larger than most pre-vote estimates and even included the Commons’ newest Conservative MP, Louie French, who recently won the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election.
Mr French later explained that he had made “a clear pre-election pledge that I would not support COVID passes for our domestic economy and voted accordingly”.
The breaking of the Tory whip by almost 100 MPs came despite Health Secretary Sajid Javid having earlier attempted to ease MPs’ concerns about the use of COVID passes in England.
Mr Javid promised that, as well as proof of COVID vaccination, evidence of a negative lateral flow test would also “always” be sufficient for entry to events under the COVID pass scheme.
Mr Johnson had also addressed an emergency meeting of the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers as he made a last-ditch effort to prevent a big split within Tory ranks on the new coronavirus rules.
Ministers’ response to the discovery of the Omicron variant had initially centred on new travel restrictions to stop its spread, but the travel red list will be cleared now that there is community transmission of the new strain within the UK.
The prime minister has also accelerated booster vaccines rollout in a bid to combat the impact of Omicron, with more than 500,000 people receiving their extra doses on Monday.
Following advice from top health officials, the government has now temporarily suspended the 15-minute observation period following a COVID jab in order to speed up the booster programme.
The prime minister has written to all NHS workers to thank them for their “incredible efforts” during the pandemic so far, but also call on them to help deliver “the biggest, fastest vaccination drive this country has ever seen”.
“I know this will not be easy, I know that you are tired and weary,” Mr Johnson wrote.
“But you know how critical it is that we get Britain boosted, and fast.”
There were 59,610 new COVID infections and 150 further deaths recorded within 28 days of a positive test reported in government figures on Tuesday.
There were signs that the current surge in COVID cases across the UK was also impacting those at Westminster, as a number of MPs reported on Tuesday that they were self-isolating after testing positive.
One MP suggested that the “jammed” voting lobbies in the Commons would be a further “COVID spreader”.