Boris Johnson is trying to fight off a growing backlash among Conservative MPs over the new coronavirus tiers, with more than 50 going public with their concerns.
According to a tally by Sky News, a total of 57 Tories have voiced their unhappiness over tiering or have said they are unlikely to support the measures when it comes to a vote next week.
Search your area on this map to find out which tier it has been placed in
“I totally understand why people feel frustrated, I get that,” the prime minister said about the COVID-19 restrictions.
“But I really, really hope that people also understand that I think the vast majority of the British public want us to work hard, do the right thing and beat the virus together.”
It comes after it was revealed that 99% of England’s population will fall under the two toughest tiers when the second national lockdown ends on 2 December.
About 32 million people – covering 57.3% of England – will fall into Tier 2. But 23.3 million people – 41.5% of the population – are going to be placed in Tier 3 from 2 December.
Large parts of the Midlands, the North East and the North West will be subject to the severest measures. Hospitality venues will be closed in the run-up to Christmas unless they can provide takeaway or delivery services, and households are forbidden from mixing indoors.
But figures suggest that, of the 119 areas that will be in Tier 3 from next week, only eight have reported a rise in coronavirus cases.
Mr Johnson stressed that he understood people’s frustrations, but defended the strengthened tiers.
“I know it’s very frustrating for people who feel that they’re in a high tier area when there’s very little incidence in their village or their area. I totally understand why people feel so frustrated,” the PM said.
“But the difficulty is that if you did it any other way, first of all you’d divide the country up into loads and loads of very complicated sub divisions.
“There’s got to be some simplicity and some clarity in the way that we do this.
“The second problem is that, alas, our experience is that when a high incidence area is quite close to a low incidence area, unless you beat the problem in the high incidence area the low incidence area, I’m afraid, starts to catch up.”
The government has promised that it will publish an impact assessment of the measures before MPs vote on them on Tuesday, amid concerns that the economic harm and knock-on health effects of the tier system have not been fully taken into account.
And in a bid to soften the blow for Tier 3 areas, ministers are promising them access to rapid-result COVID-19 tests to help bring down infections, as well as cash subsidies.
Extra cash will also be on offer to areas placed into Tier 2 and Tier 3.
Asked if Mr Johnson would be holding any talks with unhappy Conservative MPs before next week’s vote on the tiers, the PM’s spokesman said he “is in regular contact with MPs and that will be no different as we move through this process”.
When asked if the government could seek to use the Civil Contingencies Act if the tiered system is rejected by MPs, the spokesman said he would “not get into speculation”.
On access to testing, Mr Johnson said: “We’ve got tens of, perhaps hundreds of millions of lateral flow tests coming into this country. We already have a huge stockpile.
“The difficulty is not the supply at the moment, the difficulty is actually working with local government, local communities to get them doing it.”
The PM added: “So the supply I don’t think is going to be the problem. The issue is going to be getting everybody mobilised, to understand the potential advantages of mass community testing.”
Mr Johnson’s comments come after one of his ministers said some parts of England could have their coronavirus restrictions eased before Christmas.
The coronavirus tiers are due to be reviewed by the government on 16 December.
Speaking to Kay Burley, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said there was “every reason” to believe some areas could be moved down the tier system.
The PM echoed this, saying there “really is the prospect” of that happening.