MPs Back Covid 'Rule Of Six' Despite Small Tory Rebellion

Backbenchers took aim at minister Helen Whately as she said alternative to social distancing was to see virus "let rip".

Boris Johnson’s ‘rule of six’ has won the backing of the Commons, despite a small cluster of Tory MPs mounting a rebellion over the Covid-19 regulation.

The government comfortably won its motion for the strict social distancing rule by 281 votes to 17, on Tuesday night, though backbench frustration with new restrictions appeared to be growing.

The prime minister last month introduced the rule of six, which makes gatherings of more than six people illegal, indoors and outdoors, amid a spike in the the infection rate.

MPs were offered a retrospective vote, however, after voicing anger that the new rule, which is backed up by hefty fines which can climb to £3,200 for repeat offenders, and others such as the 10pm curfew had been brought in with little parliamentary scrutiny.

Health minister Helen Whately said the ‘rule of six’ was “simple” for voters and drew ire from party colleagues as she suggested the alternative to social distancing would be to allow the disease “let rip” through the population.

Several Tory backbenchers rose to share doubts about more restrictions, however, with many fearing job losses and that the state is encroaching too heavily on individuals’ freedoms amid the pandemic.

Twelve Tory MPs rebelled and they were: Peter Bone, Graham Brady, Philip Davies, Richard Drax, Philip Hollobone, Esther McVey, Huw Merriman, Henry Smith, Desmond Swayne, Robert Syms, Charles Walker, and William Wragg.

Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, asked whether the government had considered a “rule of eight” instead.

During a Commons debate on Covid-19 regulations, he said: “Can she (health minister Helen Whately) share with us her estimate of the efficacy of the rule of six compared to that of a rule of eight had that been introduced instead.

Helen Whately, health minister
Helen Whately, health minister
Helen Whately, health minister

“Is the rule of six more or less effective than a ban on household mixing?”

He added: “These rules are a massive intrusion into the liberty and private lives of the whole British people, and they’re having a devastating economic effect as well which will result in big job losses and masses of business failures.”

Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, who is among those who refused to back the rule, said he had “real concerns about the very high cost of these measures” and “absolutely appalling set of costs which people are bearing”.

He added: “This is a devastating social impact on our society and I believe that people would make different choices were they the ones able to take responsibility for themselves.”

MPs also questioned the “rationale” behind children not being exempt from the restriction.

Steve Brine, MP for Winchester, said: “What is the rationale for children under the age of those who would have to wear masks being included in the rule of six – the rationale, not the fact that it is happening, the rationale?”

Bexhill and Battle Tory MP Huw Merriman added he was concerned social distancing was losing public support, telling MPs: “When it comes to the rule of six I do have great concerns because I do not see the evidence in terms of how this will reduce the rates of Covid.

“Nobody is suggesting that we let the virus rip.”

- Steve Baker MP

“My biggest concern which I’d say to the government and to the front bench is this – we are ruling by consent, we need people to come with us.”

A number of backbenchers also took Whately to task over the phrase “let rip”, underlining that they want the government “to be successful” in tackling Covid outbreaks.

Whately also faced criticism from MPs after suggesting the alternative to imposing restrictions would be allowing the virus to “let rip”.

Baker said: “Nobody is suggesting that we let the virus rip. You know, radical as I may be, I quoted some supportive passages in my own remarks.

“But also when she says it’s deadly, I think we all accept that it is deadly for people who have prior risk factors which raise the infection fatality rate, but isn’t it the truth that for a great many people who are younger and without prior conditions, this is not an especially deadly disease?

“We knew that at the beginning, we know it today. It is deadly for a certain section of our society and it’s them we’re looking after. Can we please be honest about that?”

Whately responded: “The majority of those that have spoken this evening have absolutely supported the fact that we do need to have restrictions in place which is very good to hear.”

Former whip Mark Harper added: “We all want the government to be successful but if every time somebody asks a question or posits a different strategy, we are accused of wanting to let it rip and kill tens of thousands of people, this debate will not remain good-tempered and I would just say to her please accept we are all trying to get this right.”