By Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan and Kate Holton
LONDON -Britain’s prime minister defended his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, saying new restrictions were needed to fight a new variant as the number of daily infections in the United Kingdom soared to a record high.
Boris Johnson’s government sought to play down what was the largest parliamentary vote against his administration by lawmakers from his own party a day earlier, with one minister saying it was not surprising that there were different views over the restrictions, dubbed draconian by many Conservatives.
The British leader noted that the measures – implemented in response to the new Omicron variant and which include ordering people to wear masks in public places and use certificates of vaccination or of a negative test for some venues – were passed.
But the opposition Labour Party quickly pointed out that they were only approved because of its own votes. Labour leader Keir Starmer accused Johnson in parliament of being “the worst possible prime minister at the worst possible time”.
The latest figures released on Wednesday showed new COVID-19 infections in the United Kingdom reached the highest daily level since the early 2020 start of the pandemic with more than 78,000.
The refusal of scores of Conservative lawmakers to back Johnson despite fevered lobbying underlines the depth of anger over the new COVID-19 rules as well as a slew of scandals buffeting his government.
Several lawmakers said he should treat the rebellion as a wake-up call to draw a line under both.
“I respect and understand the legitimate anxieties that colleagues have about restrictions on…liberties,” Johnson told parliament during its weekly prime minister’s questions session.
“But I believe that the approach that we are taking is balanced and proportionate and right for this country,” he said, adding that he would continue to “get on with the job” when asked if he would resign.
At the rowdy parliamentary session, Johnson found support from the very lawmakers who had challenged him a day earlier, with some shouting “more, more” after he answered questions from Labour’s Starmer.
Earlier, his transport minister, Grant Shapps, said governing was hard during a pandemic, but while ministers had not always got it right, at many other times they had, including when Johnson called for people to get boosters against Omicron.
Britain had reported 59,610 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, the highest figure since January and the fifth highest during the pandemic.
“Governing is difficult, especially with something like coronavirus, there’s no textbook, there’s no manual to work through,” Shapps told Sky News.
Tuesday’s vote intensified pressure on Johnson.
It came just before an election in central England on Thursday for a long-time Conservative seat that, some lawmakers say, could be lost to the Liberal Democrats.
He is also already under fire over scandals such as reported parties in his Downing Street office last year – when Britain was in a COVID-19 lockdown – and a pricey refurbishment of his apartment.
Late on Tuesday, the Mirror newspaper published a picture of a Downing Street party last year attended by Conservative aides breaking COVID-19 rules.
“It’s disgraceful to have a party like that,” Shapps said.