Tensions are building in the Conservative party as the government prepares to extend the Coronavirus Act for another six months, with backbench MPs openly accusing the health secretary of using a false claim to justify holding on to powers.
Angry Tories hit out at Matt Hancock for saying the legislation needed to be renewed until well after the planned final stage of unlocking on 21 June in order for the furlough scheme, which will stay in place until the end of September, to continue.
Hancock wrote to MPs and peers to shore up support for the Coronavirus Act and regulations, given frustrations from some in his own party who think restrictions should be dropped much earlier owing to the fast pace of the vaccine rollout.
He warned that “we must proceed with caution” given “the third wave in continental Europe shows us that the threat from this virus has not disappeared”.
“There are still vulnerable people that we must protect,” Hancock explained in the letter, seen by the Guardian, adding: “Without the continuation of the Coronavirus Act, some of our most important support would fall automatically, such as the furlough scheme.”
Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said the claim that furlough continuing for another six months relied on the act “simply isn’t true” and that he was likely to vote against the legislation.
He said: “The basis for the financial support packages are supported by the parts of the Coronavirus Act that automatically remain in force. No matter how parliament votes this week on the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act, the financial support packages will remain in place regardless.”
Steve Baker, the deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group, confirmed he would vote against the government on Thursday.
“Matt’s letter is wrong,” he said. “We have confirmed and had Commons library confirmation. A Treasury official also confirmed we are right, in the chat of a call earlier.”
The human rights charity Liberty said Hancock’s claim was “not true” and that if the act were repealed, then “MPs will have several weeks to replace it and they can keep any positives when they do”.
Several Conservative MPs also expressed unease privately. One said they “weren’t convinced” by Hancock’s claim and were likely to vote against the government or abstain if many other colleagues did not follow suit. Another said there was “real disquiet” and the health secretary’s suggestion had been “disproved by the Treasury”. While a third said extending the act for six months was harder to justify than the regulations being prolonged for three more months, in line with the unlocking roadmap.
The Department of Health and Social Care and a spokesperson for Hancock did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite some Tory backbenchers’ unease, others were relaxed and trust that the government will eventually drop its emergency powers. “I’m a bit more hawkish than ministers are but generally my constituents are happy,” one said. Another declared they were on the government’s “side of things”, adding: “They know best.”
A former cabinet minister said reassurances from the government when the debate begins on Thursday would “do the trick” at placating people’s nerves, so potential rebels would be looking for reassurances the act could be repealed early, if possible.
Labour is expected to support the Coronavirus Act and regulations – meaning its extension is all but confirmed. However, some opposition backbench MPs still plan to oppose it.
The former shadow cabinet minister Dawn Butler said the legislation was “poorly written” and contained “sweeping, unaccountable powers”. “The act was passed in emergency circumstances, but the government has had 11 months to learn from its mistakes and create something better,” she added, ahead of tabling her own bill, which she said “rolls back the reliance on criminal justice”.
Boris Johnson has been keen to promote his roadmap out of lockdown as being cautious but irreversible, given the “stay at home” order has been made three times in England since it was first issued on 23 March 2020.
In an attempt to boost hopes that people’s liberties would soon be returned, the prime minister told a No 10 coronavirus briefing on Tuesday that the country was moving “step by step, jab by jab” towards “reclaiming our freedoms”.