Keir Starmer is facing pressure from Labour MPs whose local economies could be hit by the latest Covid curbs to take a tougher stance against the government’s approach.
MPs are expected to be offered votes on Tuesday on the 10pm pubs and restaurants curfew and aspects of the new tiered restrictions.
The Labour leader, who has adopted a policy of “constructive opposition” throughout the pandemic, said last week his party would abstain on any vote on the 10pm curfew.
But a growing number of Labour MPs believe the time has come for what one called “a parting of the ways” with the government on its management of the crisis.
The former shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne said he would oppose 10pm closing if MPs were given a straight vote. The MP for Denton and Reddish in Greater Manchester said a briefing by the chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, last week was unconvincing.
He said: “They just have to be seen to be doing something and this is the easy hit, but speaking to [local health officials], they’re all saying exactly the same: that the 10pm curfew has been completely counterproductive because … you’re diverting people away from Covid-secure businesses, where there’s table service, there’s social distancing, there’s mask-wearing, where there’s track and trace. And there’s enforcement powers.
“Everybody’s spilling out at the same time, they’re all getting on buses or waiting for taxis in a non-Covid-secure way, they’re going to the supermarket and getting a load of booze, and then they’re going to each other’s houses drinking it.”
The shadow business minister, Lucy Powell, another Greater Manchester MP, said local data showed just 9% of new cases could be traced back to a hospitality setting. She called for a “really well-resourced” local tracing system to help prevent the spread of the virus in homes.
John Spellar, the MP for Warley in the West Midlands, said he was sceptical about the 10pm curfew and the possibility of entire sectors being shuttered, potentially for months.
He said he had not yet decided how to vote on the curfew but pointed out that Starmer had demanded evidence from Johnson to justify the policy.
“Nothing I’ve seen … seems to show that they have come up with that evidence,” he said. “I’m waiting to see how this evolves, as it becomes clearer and clearer that the government don’t know what they’re doing – and this is clear not just to Labour members, but to a great number of Tory members as well … There are no good grounds now for bailing this government out.”
Final whipping decisions are unlikely to be taken until Tuesday’s shadow cabinet meeting but Labour strategists say the leadership is concerned about being seen to oppose measures to control the virus as cases rise, even if the party remains critical of ministers’ approach.
Asked about the curfew on Monday morning, Starmer said: “I doubt there’s any real scientific basis behind it. It isn’t working as it was intended because it was a hard stop and you’ve seen loads of examples of people going out on to the streets.”
But he said MPs would only get a yes/no vote, and Labour wanted changes to make the rule work better, adding: “We won’t vote against it because in the end we are voting against a restriction and then there’s nothing in its place.”
After Starmer said his party would abstain on 10pm closing last week, the Tory MP Steve Baker, who is leading a group of Conservatives opposing the measure, said he and colleagues would have no chance of success without Labour’s support.