Boris Johnson was accused of introducing a “scaremongering propaganda campaign” to restrict social interaction, as Conservative MPs criticised new measures to combat the Omicron variant of coronavirus.
The Prime Minister faced a backbench backlash as the House of Commons considered the requirement for face coverings to be worn in shops and public transport in England, while all travellers returning to the UK must take a PCR test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
All contacts of suspected Omicron cases must self-isolate, regardless of their age or vaccination status.
Tory MPs also took exception to comments from the UK’s Health Security Agency, Dr Jenny Harries, who urged people not to socialise if they do not need to in the run-up to Christmas.
The division lists showed 32 Tories rebelled to oppose the self-isolation regulations while 19 opposed the face-covering measures, although both were approved by majorities of 395 and 411 respectively.
Conservative MPs Philip Hollobone (Kettering) and Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) acted as the tellers for the noes on both votes.
Former minister Sir Christopher Chope labelled the regulations “oppressive, authoritarian and dictatorial” as he warned it would have an “adverse effect” on lives and livelihoods.
He argued ministers had produced “no evidence whatsoever” to show the impact of the regulations on protecting public health.
The Tory MP for Christchurch told the Commons: “These regulations are part of a scaremongering propaganda campaign on the part of the Government, which is really designed to try to stop or restrict social interaction between social animals who happen to be living in the United Kingdom.
“That I think is potentially the most damaging aspect of these regulations before us today.
“They’re designed to supress freedom of the individual and supress social contact, and they’re doing that through unreasonable fear-mongering.”
Conservative former chief whip Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) earlier pressed health minister Maggie Throup over the comments made by Dr Harries.
He said: “The Prime Minister was asked about this and made it very clear that was not the Government’s position and that people should follow the advice… could she be clear that Dr Harries was only speaking for herself, she was not speaking for the Government?”
Ms Throup replied: “As (he) said, that what the Prime Minister has said is that we (are) putting these measures in place, which I will talk more about, and I cannot speak for any other person who goes on the airwaves.”
But Conservative former minister Steve Baker said the Government is “facing chaos” if ministers do not have a view on employees of departments taking their own personal positions.
Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, said there were “serious concerns” about the “efficacy of what is being proposed”, and warned against “mission creep”.
Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) asked Sir Graham about the “madness” of moving through a cycle of restrictions, vaccines and accompanying freedoms, followed by variants and new restrictions.
Sir Graham said: “I think we should all be afraid of the madness of that kind of policy.
“And the difficulty is that, maybe 18 months ago, when some of us started raising these concerns, it was possible for some people to suggest that we were being fanciful. We’ve now lived it for 18 months, and we can see this reaching ahead.
“Now again we see the Government’s immediate assumption that what it should reach for is new controls, new compulsion. New rules that will be inflicted on the British people.
“And I think we need to move away from that, move back to a world where we trust people.”
Conservative former minister Sir Desmond Swayne warned “another pingdemic” could occur as Christmas approaches to the “huge disadvantage of enterprises across the country”.
He said the Government’s proposal “fundamentally undermines” the effort to increase vaccination rates by removing the exemption for vaccinated people to isolate when coming into contact with a positive case.
Sir Desmond added: “If you take that away, you’re removing one of the incentives, the principle incentive, to get vaccinated.”
Steve Brine, a former public health minister, said he was “ambivalent” about the face coverings regulations but expressed concerns over the isolation regulations.
The Conservative MP for Winchester warned of a “pingdemic that’s going devastate education again”.
On the “chilling effect”, he added: “There’s nothing in these regulations that says you’ve got to cancel Christmas parties, unless Dr Harries, of course, is in charge, but there’s everything in the language and the narrative that’s coming out of Government right now that is causing Christmas parties to be cancelled.”
Opening the debate, Ms Throup said the new measures were “proportionate, precautionary and balanced”.
She said: “While we are not implementing the entirety of the (autumn and winter) plan now, we are taking steps to respond to a potentially potent mutation of the virus.”