Boris Johnson faces renewed pressure over the 10pm hospitality curfew as a pub chain announced hundreds of job losses and Tory MPs signalled they would rebel in protest at the restriction.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer demanded to see the science behind the policy before a Commons vote expected next week, indicating that the rule should be reviewed if there was no firm evidence for it.
The political pressure on Mr Johnson intensified as Greene King announced it will shut dozens of pubs with the loss of 800 jobs, blaming the “continued tightening of trading restrictions” in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
England’s 10pm rule is stricter than a similar measure in Wales and Northern Ireland’s 11pm curfew – something ministers have reportedly been looking at.
But in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon announced even tighter restrictions from 6pm on Friday in response to rising coronavirus cases.
Indoor hospitality venues will only be allowed to operate between 6am and 6pm daily, selling food and non-alcoholic drinks only, while outdoor bars will be allowed to serve alcohol until 10pm.
Concerns over England’s rules have seen Tory critics demand that they are debated in the chamber of the House of Commons next week rather than by a small committee.
In a sign of the concerns on the Conservative benches, Stockton South MP Matt Vickers told the PA news agency it was time to rethink the curfew.
“This curfew has led to vast numbers of people being asked to leave pubs at 10pm, and pour on to the streets, many of whom then find their way to the nearest shop, buying cans and bottles to go back to gather in someone’s home.
“The measure has in my view been counterproductive – taking people from the Covid-secure pubs, bars and restaurants to non-compliant gatherings in the streets or private homes.”
He said it was time to “trust and support” hospitality businesses, “not punish them”.
Former minister Steve Baker told ITV News he would oppose the 10pm curfew, which is “badly evidenced and appears to be counterproductive”.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir said: “One question is now screaming out: is there a scientific basis for the 10pm rule?
“The public deserve to know and Parliament deserves to know.”
Neither Mr Johnson nor Downing Street aides highlighted any specific evidence but stressed that the measure should be viewed as part of a package of restrictions aimed at tackling coronavirus.
The Prime Minister told the Labour leader: “The basis on which we set out the curtailment of hospitality was the basis on which he accepted it two weeks ago – that is to reduce the spread of the virus.”
Efforts by Tory MPs to push for a relaxation of the 10pm measure came as Mr Johnson faced pressure over his wider strategy for bringing the disease back under control.
Official figures showed that as of 9am on Wednesday, there had been a further 14,162 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
The Government also said a further 70 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Government’s scientific advisory panel who specialises in disease outbreaks, recommended a “circuit breaker” short national lockdown should be considered to slow the virus.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Semple – a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s always easier to reduce an outbreak at the earlier stage than to let it run and then try to reduce it at a later stage.
“So, yes, circuit breakers are certainly something we should be thinking about on a national basis.”
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir said 19 of the 20 areas subjected to local measures for two months had seen infection rates increase.
And he questioned why constituencies such as Mr Johnson’s in west London were spared extra curbs while northern seats with lower levels of coronavirus were hit with restrictions.
“The Prime Minister can’t explain why an area goes into restrictions, he can’t explain what the different restrictions are, and he can’t explain how restrictions end,” Sir Keir said.
“This is getting ridiculous.”
The Prime Minister insisted the Government would “continue with our package to suppress the virus not just nationally but locally and regionally as well”.
The rise in cases has led to warnings from leaders of northern cities that the local lockdown restrictions are not working.
The leaders of Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle city councils – Judith Blake, Sir Richard Leese and Nick Forbes – joined Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson in writing to Health Secretary Matt Hancock to say they are “extremely concerned” about the rise in cases.
“The existing restrictions are not working, confusing for the public and some, like the 10pm rule, are counterproductive,” the Labour politicians wrote.
They called for additional powers to punish those who break rules, for new restrictions to be developed by police, council and public health experts, and for a locally controlled test and trace system.
“We want to be clear, however, that we do not support further economic lockdowns,” the leaders added.