Sir Keir Starmer has urged Boris Johnson not to bow to pressure from his own MPs calling for a faster lifting of restrictions, as he sought to exploit divisions on the Conservative benches.
Offering his support for the Government’s “cautious” approach, the Labour leader told Mr Johnson he would have the votes he needed to pass new regulations needed to enact the roadmap if he continued to follow the advice of his scientific advisers.
However, attempting to drive a wedge between the Government and lockdown sceptic backbenchers, Sir Keir pointed out that more than 60 Tory MPs had called for the end of all restrictions by the end of April.
The Covid Recovery Group (CRG), led by former government chief whip Mark Harper and ex-Brexit minister Steve Baker, have called for hospitality venues to be reopened in time for Easter.
In a letter sent to Mr Johnson earlier this month, they also argued that by the end of April – when all over-50s have been offered the vaccine – there would be “no justification” for any legislative restrictions to remain.
Calling on Mr Johnson to ensure this was the “last lockdown”, Sir Keir said: “In the past we’ve emerged without sufficient caution, without a clear plan and without listening to the science. We can’t afford to make those mistakes again.
“I know the Prime Minister will come under pressure from those on his own benches to go faster and to throw caution to the wind.
“I’m sure there are going to be similar calls this afternoon. I hope the Prime Minister takes the opportunity to face this down because if this road map is to work he needs to listen to the chief scientific officer and the chief medical officer, not [Mr Baker or Mr Harper].
“If the Prime Minister does, he will have our support and will secure a majority in the House. If he does not, we will waste all the sacrifices of the last 12 months.”
While also backing the full reopening of schools on March 8, in defiance of the country’s teaching unions, Sir Keir asked Mr Johnson to confirm that the plan had been endorsed by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser.
Responding, Mr Johnson said: “I can certainly say that that plan for March 8 is supported by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, and it would be a good thing if he could perhaps persuade some of his friends in the unions to say so as well and finally to say that schools are safe.”
However, in a sign of the divisions on Sir Keir’s own backbenchers, John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, claimed that “rejecting the advice of the teachers is the definition of recklessness.”
His comments were echoed by Zarah Sultana, a fellow member of the Socialist Campaign Group of far-Left MPs, who claimed that “the “big bang” reopening of all schools on 8 March is totally reckless.”
A senior teaching union source said: “It has left Keir Starmer with some questions to answer. Scotland and Wales are taking a much more cautious approach.
“Keir Starmer clumsily allied himself with Boris Johnson yesterday without any of the nuance which he should have been able to bring to the debate.
“To be on the side of parents that schools need to be open, but on the side of the science that schools need to open safely and sustainably.”
Meanwhile, Sir Keir also ratcheted up pressure on Mr Johnson to announce new economic support for businesses which face continued restrictions for several months.
Calling for business rates and VAT holidays for hospitality and leisure businesses to be extended, he added: “Businesses are crying out for certainty – the Prime Minister should give them it today.
“The Prime Minister should also announce proper support for the three million self-employed who have been ignored for the last year.”
The Government has repeatedly stated that decisions on coronavirus support for businesses and workers will be announced by Rishi Sunak in the Budget, which will take place on Wednesday next week.