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UK: MPs vote for new COVID measures, amid rebellion against PM Boris Johnson

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By Alice Tidey  & Luke Hurst  with AFP
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson records an address to the nation at Downing Street, London
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson records an address to the nation at Downing Street, London   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

British MPs have voted for further measures to battle the coronavirus pandemic, despite a sizeable rebellion against the measures from within prime minister Boris Johnson's own Conservative party.

Johnson suffered by far the biggest rebellion of his time as PM, with the government relying on the support of the opposition Labour Party to get the measures passed.

Before the vote in Parliament it was expected that some 60 and 80 Conservative lawmakers would vote against the government's latest COVID measures.

The most contested measure, bringing in vaccine passports, passed by 369 to 126 - meaning the number of MPs who voted against is bigger than his majority in Parliament.

Ninety-six Conservatives voted against the measure.

An earlier vote on extending mandatory use of face masks in indoor settings, passed by a huge majority, with 441 in favour and 41 against.

The final vote, on mandating COVID vaccines for NHS workers, passed by 385 to 100 - another sizeable rebellion.

The prime minister made a last minute plea to MPs from his Conservative party prior to the votes taking place on Tuesday evening.

Following the vote, Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, accused Johnson of "undermining public health at a critical moment for our country".

“The size of that vote is a reflection of the shattered authority of Boris Johnson," he told Sky News.

“It’s not just about the votes in here. It’s about the confidence in the country, not just in the prime minister, that’s gone, but the confidence in the public health messages of the government, the confidence in the public health measures of the government.

The vote in parliament came with Johnson under huge pressure following allegations that parties were held at the heart of government this time last year when the country was on lockdown and such gatherings banned.

Vaccine passports 'not acceptable in a free society'

A number of Conservative MPs came out publicly against the government's plans prior to the vote.

"I think all these measures are wrong, they are disproportionate and there is insufficient evidence that they are necessary," former Brexit minister Steve Baker told the BBC at the weekend.

Fellow Conservative MP Mark Harper also signalled he would rebel during Tuesday's vote, writing on Twitter: "The initial evidence on Omicron does not support the measures announced."

"COVID will be with us 'forever', according to the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, variants too. The Government still hasn't set out a credible exit strategy from restrictions. Their current approach means on-off, seasonal COVID restrictions forever," he added.

MP Marcus Fysh, meanwhile, said he would vote against the Prime Minister's measures because "vaccine passports and compulsion are not acceptable in a free society and counterproductive for confidence in vaccines and public health".

First reported death from Omicron

The UK is Europe's worst impacted country after Russia with 146,500 fatalities recorded since the beginning of the pandemic.

It became the first country in the world on Monday to report a death from the new Omicron variant with Johnson warning over the weekend of a "tidal wave" in infections. The UK has recorded more than 50,000 new daily infections for the past six days.

To counter the rise in infections and slow the spread of the new variant, believed to be much more transmissible than the Delta variant and more resistant to currently available vaccines, Johnson has unveiled a massive booster programme that aims to offer 1 million booster shots by the end of the month.

Data suggest the level of protection against Omicron rises to 70-75% days after a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Party scandals

But the rebellion could nonetheless be damaging to Johnson who has been at the centre of a number of scandals in recent weeks, denting his popularity.

On Sunday, the Sunday Mirror published a photo of the British leader taking part in an online quiz at Downing Street, surrounded by staff, in December 2020, at a time when Britons were being asked to limit their social interactions to the extreme.

The British are also blaming him for a party that was allegedly held at Downing Street on December 18, 2020, when they themselves were deprived of celebrations due to the pandemic. A leaked video of Johnson's staff joking about the Christmas party has added fuel to the fire.

These COVID scandals come on top of accusations of corruption following the government's attempt to change parliamentary disciplinary rules for the benefit of a Tory MP, Owen Paterson, who was convicted in a conflict of interest case.

The Prime Minister was called to order on Thursday over the costly renovation of his Downing Street home. The Electoral Commission fined his party £16,250 (€19,000) for failing to declare the full amount of the private donation received to fund the work.

An Opinium poll commissioned by the Observer and released on Saturday found that Johnson's popularity has "nose-dived over the past week" with just 24% of respondents approving of the job he is doing.

Support for the Conservative has meanwhile dropped four percentage points to 32%, while the Labour has gained three points to 41% — its biggest lead since 2014.