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UK PM defends virus record after revolt

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying new curbs are needed to fight a new variant, a day after a rebellion against them by about 100 Conservatives dealt a stinging blow to his authority.

Johnson’s government sought to play down what was the largest parliamentary vote against his administration by lawmakers from his own party, with one minister saying it was not surprising that there were different views over the restrictions, dubbed draconian by many Conservatives.

The UK leader noted that the measures – implemented in response to the new Omicron variant and which include ordering people to wear masks in public places and use COVID-19 passes for some venues – were passed.

But the opposition Labour Party quickly pointed out that they were only approved because of its votes, with leader Keir Starmer accusing Johnson in parliament of being “the worst possible prime minister at the worst possible time”.

The refusal of scores of Conservative MPs to back Johnson despite fevered lobbying underlines the depth of anger over the new COVID-19 rules as well as a slew of scandals buffeting his government.

Several MPs said he should treat the rebellion as a wake-up call to draw a line under both.

“I respect and understand the legitimate anxieties that colleagues have about restrictions on… liberties,” Johnson told parliament during its weekly prime minister’s questions session on Wednesday.

“But I believe that the approach that we are taking is balanced and proportionate and right for this country,” he said, adding that he would continue to “get on with the job” when asked if he would resign.

At the rowdy parliamentary session, Johnson found support from the very MPs who had challenged him a day earlier, with some shouting “more, more” after he answered questions from Labour’s Starmer.

Johnson said parliamentarians will be given a say over any further restrictions needed to tackle the spread of COVID-19.

The House of Commons is due to break for Christmas on Thursday.

“If further regulation is needed of course this House will have a further say,” Johnson said when asked by Starmer if parliament would get to approve further measures.

Earlier, his transport minister Grant Shapps said governing was hard during a pandemic but while ministers had not always got it right, at many other times they had – including when Johnson called for people to get boosters against Omicron.

The UK reported 59,610 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, the highest figure since January and the fifth highest during the pandemic.

“Governing is difficult, especially with something like coronavirus, there’s no textbook, there’s no manual to work through,” Shapps told Sky News.

Tuesday’s vote piles pressure on Johnson.

It comes just before an election in central England on Thursday for a traditional Conservative seat that some MPs say could be lost to the Liberal Democrats.

He is also already under fire over scandals such as reported parties in his Downing Street office last year – when the UK was in a COVID-19 lockdown – and a pricey refurbishment of his apartment.

Late on Tuesday, the Mirror newspaper, which has reported that parties were held in Johnson’s Downing Street office during last year’s lockdown, published a picture of a party last year attended by Conservative aides breaking COVID-19 rules.

“It’s disgraceful to have a party like that,” Shapps said.

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