Boris Johnson has been challenged to publish the scientific evidence behind the 10pm closing time for English pubs ahead of a vote by MPs next week.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the public “deserved to know” the basis for the restriction and if it could not be justified the rule must be reviewed.
Tory MPs opposed to the move may rebel in the Commons vote.
The PM said the rationale behind it had not changed and it was designed to reduce the spread of the virus.
The two party leaders clashed over the effectiveness and fairness of national and local Covid restrictions at Prime Minister’s Questions, with Sir Keir accusing the PM of incompetence and the PM saying Labour had supported the government’s position, then changed its stance.
All pubs, bars, restaurants and other hospitality venues in England have been required to close at 10pm since 24 September, as part of a package of measures to try and contain a surge of new cases in the North of England.
Ministers argue it has had a “beneficial effect” on the spread of the virus in areas where the restriction had already been tried – but it has become a lighting rod for dissatisfaction on the Tory benches about Covid restrictions.
And regional leaders, including the mayors of Manchester and London, have called for it to be reviewed amid concerns it has led to large crowds gathering outside venues in some cities after closing time.
Meanwhile, pub operator Greene King has announced it will shut dozens of pubs with the loss of 800 jobs.
In other developments:
- All pubs and restaurants across the central belt of Scotland – including in Glasgow and Edinburgh – are to shut for two weeks from Friday amid a tightening of restrictions
- New restrictions aimed at slowing a surge in coronavirus cases are to be announced by Scotland’s first minister
- Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said he will outline a taskforce to implement a testing system on people arriving in the country from abroad
- Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has urged MPs to wear face coverings while walking around Parliament
Labour believe they are onto something with this agenda of pressing the government over how competently it has responded to the Covid pandemic.
By pushing the prime minister to give more information on the scientific justification for the 10pm pub closing time, Labour are opening up the possibility they might be able to walk back from supporting it.
You can see the prime minister’s frustration, because initially Labour backed the move.
By pushing the government to produce the evidence – which they haven’t thus far – you wonder whether Labour might be paving the way to gang up with Tory rebels ahead of a vote on it next week.
Sir Keir said MPs, who will vote on whether to keep the regulations in force next week, needed to know the evidence for how the 10pm closing time reduced transmission.
He said: “One question is now screaming out. Is there a scientific basis for the 10pm rule? The public and Parliament deserve to know. If there is, why does the government do itself a favour and publish it?
“If not, why does the government not review the rule?”
In response, Mr Johnson said “the basis on which we set out the curtailment of hospitality was the basis on which he accepted it two weeks ago.
“And that is the reduce the spread of the virus and that is our objective.”
The prime minister accused Labour of withdrawing its support for other restrictions, after its MPs were told to abstain in a vote on Tuesday on maintaining the rule of six limit on social gatherings.
“What kind of signal does this send to the people of the country about the robustness of the Labour Party and their willingness to enforce the restrictions?” he added.
During heated exchanges, the Labour leader urged the PM to be straight with the public about whether local lockdowns were working and to explain why some areas of the country were not being subject to restrictions despite having a higher proportion of cases than those targeted.
He said cases were continuing to rise in 19 of the 20 local council areas which had been to subject to restrictions between the end of July and start of August – including Bradford, Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport and Wigan.
The Labour leader said that in Burnley, infection rates were 21 per 100,000 people when restrictions were introduced, while now it is 434. In Bolton, it was 18 per 100,000, while now it is 255.
At the same time, he said no extra restrictions were being applied in the London borough of Hillingdon – which is home to the PM’s Uxbridge and Ruislip constituency – despite it having recorded weekly figures as high as 62 cases per 100,000 people.
This, he said, was a far higher figure than the rate of infection in Kirklees in West Yorkshire – 29 cases per 100,000 people – when restrictions were imposed there on 30 July
“The prime minister really needs to understand that local communities are angry and frustrated,” he said.
“So will he level with the people of Bury, Burnley and Bolton and tell them: what does he think the central problem is that’s causing this?
“The prime minister can’t explain why an area goes into restrictions. He can’t explain what the different restrictions are, and he can’t explain how restrictions end.”
Mr Johnson said the combination of local and national measures in place were needed to deal with the continued sharp rise in cases in Manchester and Liverpool but also the uptick in infections in the Midlands and London.
“The local and regional approach, combined with national measures, remains correct because two thirds of those admitted into hospital on Sunday were in the North East, North West and Yorkshire,” he said.
Sir Keir grilled the prime minister on the effectiveness and fairness of local restrictions.
“Twenty local areas have been under restrictions for two months, in 19 of those 20 areas infections rates have gone up,” he said, citing new Labour Party analysis.
The trends highlighted in the report for those areas are correct.
In fact, only in Leicester did we see sustained declines in case rates during a local lockdown, but those rates quickly increased when restrictions were loosened.
The issue with the Labour analysis is that a handful of the places mentioned have not actually been in local lockdowns for two complete months.
For example, Oadby and Wigston did face additional restrictions at the end of June, but these were lifted after a month. They were only placed under restrictions again on 22 September.
On another point, Sir Keir said areas in parts of the north of England had been placed into local restrictions at rates lower than those experienced in parts of the south which are not under any kind of lockdown.
This is true: Bury, Tameside, Stockport and Wigan (to name a few) had case rates of between 20 and 30 per 100,000 people when they first went into lockdown.
The London borough of Hillingdon – the prime minister’s constituency – had rates of 46 cases per 100,000, while Redbridge had 57 and Barking and Dagenham 53, in the week ending the 27 September, according to Public Health England.
And analysis by the BBC data team suggests that these rates have increased in the past week.