Sir Keir Starmer urged Boris Johnson not to bow to pressure from his own MPs calling for the restrictions to be lifted more quickly, as he seeks to exploit divisions on the Tory benches.
Offering his support for the government’s ‘cautious’ approach, the Labor leader told Mr Johnson he would have the votes he needed to pass the new regulations needed to pass the roadmap if he continued to follow the advice of his scientific advisers.
However, trying to drive a wedge between the government and skeptical backbenchers, Sir Keir pointed out that more than 60 Tory MPs had called for all restrictions to end by the end of April.
The Covid Recovery Group (CRG), led by former chief government whip Mark Harper and former Brexit Minister Steve Baker, has called for the reception areas to reopen in time for Easter.
In a letter sent to Mr Johnson earlier this month, they also argued that by the end of April – when everyone over 50 has been offered the vaccine – there will be no would have “no justification” for legislative restrictions to remain.
Calling on Mr Johnson to ensure this is the ‘last lockdown’, Sir Keir said: ‘In the past we have gone out without enough caution, without a clear plan and without listening to science. We cannot afford to make these mistakes. again.
“I know the Prime Minister will be under pressure from those on his own benches to go faster and be careful.
“I’m sure there will be similar calls this afternoon. I hope the Prime Minister takes the opportunity to deal with this because if this roadmap is to work, he has to listen to the scientific director and the head doctor, do not [Mr Baker or Mr Harper].
“If the Prime Minister does, he will have our support and get a majority in the House. If he does not, we will be wasting all the sacrifices of the past 12 months.”
While also backing the full reopening of schools on March 8, in defiance of the country’s teacher unions, Sir Keir asked Mr Johnson to confirm the plan had been approved by the chief medical officer and chief science adviser.
Responding, Mr Johnson said: ‘I can certainly say that this plan for March 8 is backed by the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Science Advisor, and it would be a good thing if he could perhaps persuade some to his union friends to say the same and finally to say that the schools are safe.
However, in a sign of division over Sir Keir’s own backbenchers, John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, claimed that “rejecting teachers’ advice is the definition of recklessness”.
His comments were echoed by Zarah Sultana, a fellow member of the socialist campaign group of far-left deputies, who claimed that “the ‘big bang’ reopening of all schools on March 8 is totally unwise”.
A high-level source from a teachers’ union said: “This left Keir Starmer with a few questions to answer. Scotland and Wales are taking a much more cautious approach.
“Keir Starmer awkwardly allied himself with Boris Johnson yesterday without any of the nuances he should have been able to bring to the debate.
“To be on the parents’ side that schools need to be open, but on the science side that schools need to open up in a safe and sustainable way.”
Meanwhile, Sir Keir has also increased pressure on Mr Johnson to announce new economic support for companies which face continued restrictions for several months.
Calling for the extension of business rates and VAT exemptions for hospitality and leisure companies, he added: “Businesses are asking for certainties – the Prime Minister should give them today.
“The Prime Minister is also expected to announce adequate support for the three million self-employed workers who were ignored 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.