Keir Starmer has decided to break with the government in a vote on Covid restrictions for the first time, as the government scrambled to contain a Tory rebellion by unveiling a multimillion-pound fund for pubs.
The prime minister is set to announce new one-off discretionary funding paid to councils for “wet” pubs and bars which cannot open under the strictest new tier restrictions for England, the Guardian understands.
But Labour is understood to believe that support for the hospitality sector must go further, and will abstain in Tuesday’s Commons vote on the tiers system which is due to replace lockdown rules from Wednesday and put 99% of the country into tiers 2 and 3. The vote is still expected to pass.
Though Boris Johnson will hope to win around some rebels with the new funding, lockdown-sceptic MPs were expressing anger on Monday night at the publication of an impact assessment of the economic and health costs of the stricter tier system.
The report threw down the gauntlet to Tory MPs, warning that letting the NHS be overwhelmed would be “intolerable for our society”, but concluded it was impossible to know whether the economic impact of the new tiers system would be greater than that of taking no action.
It was criticised by some MPs for being thin and repetitive. Mel Stride, chair of the Treasury select committee, said he was deeply disappointed by the “rehashed” and “frustrating” analysis. There had been repeated calls for its publication.
Starmer’s move to whip Labour to abstain in Tuesday’s vote will prompt fears in Downing Street that Johnson can no longer count on the opposition’s support for coronavirus measures that have become deeply unpopular with his own MPs. On Monday, the environment secretary, George Eustice, acknowledged that up to 100 MPs could rebel.
Starmer will tell his MPs he does not believe Labour should directly oppose the measures because of the need to keep control of the virus. But he will say that, by abstaining, the party can signal that the financial support for hospitality businesses is inadequate.
Starmer, who met England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, on Monday night, said coronavirus “remains a serious threat to the public’s health” and Labour accepted the need for continued restrictions. “However, I remain deeply concerned that Boris Johnson’s government has failed to use this latest lockdown to put a credible health and economic plan in place,” he said.
“We still don’t have a functioning testing system, public health messaging is confused, and businesses across the country are crying out for more effective economic support to get them through the winter months.
“It is short-term government incompetence that is causing long-term damage to the British economy. It is imperative that the government gets control of the virus so that our NHS can be protected and our economy recovers faster.”
The Lib Dems also said they would refuse to back the new system, calling it “arbitrary, confused and chaotic”.
Johnson and other cabinet ministers phoned rebellious Tory MPs on Monday, highlighting that the government had met many of the demands from the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic MPs, including reopening retail and outdoor sports and publishing the impact assessment.
However, many remain concerned about the effect on hospitality in the run-up to Christmas, with nearly 99% of the country heading into tiers 2 or 3.