Boris Johnson was forced to apologise as the Government’s handling of local lockdown measures in north-east England descended into farce.
The Prime Minister stumbled over his explanation of the ban on households mixing, which is due to come into legal effect on Wednesday, just hours after another member of his Government was unable to say whether the prohibition extended to pub beer gardens.
Mr Johnson said he “misspoke” but the confusion comes as the Government is under pressure from Tory rebels to give MPs a greater role in scrutinising and voting on new measures before they are implemented.
The new regulations in Northumberland, Newcastle, Gateshead, North and South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham will see fines imposed if people mix with others from outside their household or bubble in indoor settings, including pubs and restaurants.
But with the rules yet to be published in full, ministers faced questions about whether they would apply in settings such as beer gardens.
Education Minister Gillian Keegan was unable to answer on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and Mr Johnson added to the confusion.
“In the North East and other areas where extra-tight measures have been brought in, you should follow the guidance of local authorities but it is six in a home, six in hospitality but, as I understand it, not six outside,” Mr Johnson said in response to questions.
But he later tweeted: “Apologies, I misspoke today. In the North East, new rules mean you cannot meet people from different households in social settings indoors, including in pubs, restaurants and your home. You should also avoid socialising with other households outside.”
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said the Prime Minister was “grossly incompetent” adding: “These new restrictions are due to come into force across huge parts of the country tonight. The Government needs to get a grip.”
With MPs set to vote on the renewal of the Coronavirus Act’s powers in the Commons on Wednesday, more than 50 Tories have backed an amendment calling for Parliament to be given a greater say over the use of measures to curb people’s freedoms.
Mr Johnson urged MPs to support the measures to help reduce the spread of the virus but stressed: “Nobody wants to do these kinds of things. Nobody in their right mind wants to stop people singing and dancing in pubs or enjoying themselves in the normal way.”
The Prime Minister’s comments came after he launched a new scheme to offer free courses to people without an A-level equivalent qualification in an effort to improve the nation’s skills and help weather the coronavirus economic storm.
Warning that “huge numbers” of people will need to change jobs over the coming years, Mr Johnson said “as old types of employment fall away, new opportunities are opening up with dizzying speed”.
For those currently at university, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson insisted England’s students should be able to travel home at Christmas – although they may need to self-isolate first.
He told MPs it was “essential” that measures were put in place to ensure students could be with their loved ones during the festive period while “minimising the risk of transmission” of Covid-19.
In other developments:
– As of 9am on Tuesday, there had been a further 7,143 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK – the highest daily figure recorded since the outbreak began, although far more tests are being carried out than in the spring.
– A further 71 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday, bringing the UK total to 42,072 – although separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies show Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate in nearly 57,900 cases.
– The Prime Minister will be joined by Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance at a press conference on Wednesday, following Tory criticism of the scientists.
– Mr Johnson declared he was “fit as a butcher’s dog” as he dismissed speculation he had not fully recovered from his serious case of Covid-19 in April.
Wednesday’s vote will see MPs decide whether to renew the provisions of the emergency legislation in the Coronavirus Act.
Tory MPs expect ministers to offer concessions to Parliament in order to avoid a damaging defeat if Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle calls the rebel amendment for a vote.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential Tory 1922 Committee and the rebels’ ringleader, said there was “likely to be an accommodation reached” because “they knew we have the numbers”.