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UK

Putting pressure on Johnson, Conservatives set up COVID group

LONDON (Reuters) - Conservative lawmakers have set up a new group to fight what they call a cycle of lockdowns to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, yet another sign of discontent in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s governing party.

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves after a cabinet meeting at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London, Britain November 10, 2020. REUTERS/Toby Melville

While most Conservatives backed the government last week in supporting a second lockdown in England to try to bring down rising cases of COVID-19, more than 30 of the party’s lawmakers broke ranks, seeing the measures as draconian.

The new internal group, called the Covid Recovery Group, is the latest to be formed by Conservative lawmakers, part of wider efforts to apply pressure on a government which many feel is not listening to the party’s concerns.

“Last week I voted against a Conservative government for only the second time in my 15 years in parliament,” Mark Harper, chairman of the new group, said in a statement.

“Lockdowns cost lives...The cure we’re prescribing runs the risk of being worse than the disease.”

Steve Baker, a Brexit-supporting lawmaker who is deputy chairman, said he wanted to find “a more sustainable way of leading our lives until a vaccine is rolled out”.

They said the group would help the government to find an enduring strategy for living with the virus.

But its demands - for publication of a cost-benefit analysis of COVID-19 measures, an end to a “monopoly” of government scientists over advice, improvements to testing and tracing and a more localised approach - show it wants to steer the response.

Asked about the new group, a spokesman for Johnson repeated that the government wanted to return to a regional approach on anti-pandemic measures after Dec. 2, and would set out its proposals to give lawmakers time to consider and vote upon them.

“But in the meantime, the PM continues to urge everyone to come together and follow the rules...to help to get the R rate down,” he said, referring to the virus reproduction number.

After winning a large majority at a national election last year, Johnson and his Downing Street office have increasingly become a target for Conservative discontent over everything from U-turns in policy to a growing belief they are too distant.

Many lawmakers fear repeated lockdowns will not only further hurt an already struggling economy but also harm mental health and lead to additional deaths because people are not getting diagnosed with other diseases or missing hospital appointments.

Johnson won last week’s vote easily and has vowed the latest lockdown will end on Dec. 2 when parliament will vote on next steps in battling coronavirus in Britain, which has suffered more than 61,000 COVID-related deaths, Europe’s highest toll.

But the prime minister could face a wider rebellion in parliament if coronavirus rates fail to significantly fall and he believes more or continued restrictions are necessary.

Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Michael Holden and Mark Heinrich

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