Boris Johnson's New COVID Restrictions Set Off Backlash From His Conservative Party

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's new COVID restrictions to combat the spread of the Omicron variant set off a backlash from his Conservative Party.

The House of Commons voted on measures that go into effect this week, requiring masks in a majority of indoor spaces in England, changing directives on self-isolation, and mandating proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to enter nightclubs and large, crowded events.

While all passed due to support from the Labour Party, 97 Conservatives opposed the nightclub rules, according to a House of Commons tally. That is the biggest rebellion of Johnson's premiership so far. Just before the vote, Johnson urged Tory legislators to support the measures in a private meeting.

Lawmaker Charles Walker, one of those who opposed, said the vote was "a cry of pain from the Conservative Party" that Johnson must listen to.

The new mandates were economically damaging and limited individual freedoms, argued many Conservatives legislators.

Andrea Leadsom, a former government minister, said the regulations were "a slippery slope." Conservative lawmaker Greg Smith said the vaccine passes and vaccination requirements for health workers, which is another government policy, showed "a fundamental change in the relationship between citizen and state, and one to be resisted."

Other Conservatives said vaccine passes would not reduce the spread of COVID, as Omicron appears more resistant to vaccines. Others accused the government of overstating the threat of the Omicron variant.

Vaccine passes are now common in several European countries, but Johnson's government has held out implementing them. However, the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have enforced them, as they set their health regulations.

Boris Johnson, New COVID Regulations, Conservative Party
The House of Commons voted on and passed measures that go into effect this week, requiring masks in a majority of indoor spaces in England, changing directives on self-isolation, and mandating proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to enter nightclubs and large crowded events. In this photo, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he speaks during a press conference in London, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, after cases of the new COVID-19 variant were confirmed in the UK. Hollie Adams/Pool via AP, File

The British government argues that the highly transmissible Omicron strain has changed the argument, and COVID passes for some venues are now a sensible measure, alongside booster vaccinations for all adults.

"Omicron is a grave threat," Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers, saying the strain was already estimated to be infecting 200,000 people a day in the U.K.

He said the nightclub rule was "not a vaccine passport" because people could also use a negative virus test to enter venues.

The opposition Labour Party, meanwhile, backed the rules. Labour health spokesman West Streeting said they were "a necessary response to the Omicron threat."

"We can't be sure about the severity of the omicron variant, but we can be certain that it's spreading and spreading fast," he said. "When people invoke the story of the boy who cried wolf — the warnings that came before but never materialized — people should remember that in the end there was a wolf."

As if to underscore Omicron's rapid spread, a handful of lawmakers missed the vote because they have COVID-19 and are in quarantine.

The rebellion was a sign of growing discontent with Johnson in Conservative ranks. The party picked him to be leader in 2019 because he promised to "get Brexit done" after three years of gridlock over Britain's departure from the European Union under Prime Minister Theresa May. The same promise helped Johnson win a December 2019 election with an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, the biggest for any Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Since then the pandemic and a series of scandals have chipped away at the support for Johnson and his government. Johnson's initial reluctance to impose a nationwide lockdown in early 2020 helped give the U.K. the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe apart from Russia, with more than 146,000 deaths.

A successful vaccination program helped Johnson recover some of his authority, but his government has faced damaging allegations that it flouted the coronavirus rules it imposed on everyone else, including claims staff in Johnson's 10 Downing St. office held lockdown-breaching Christmas parties last year. Johnson has ordered an inquiry, but insists he personally broke no rules.

The government also faced charges of cronyism when it tried to block the suspension of a Conservative lawmaker found to have broken lobbying rules by advocating on behalf of two companies who were paying him. The government changed tack after an outcry and the lawmaker, Owen Paterson, resigned.

A special election on Thursday to replace Paterson could add to Johnson's woes. Polls suggest the opposition Liberal Democrats may take the seat from the Conservatives. Nationally, the Labour Party has opened up a lead in opinion polls.

Since a national election is not scheduled until 2024, the danger for Johnson comes largely from his own party. The Conservatives have a long history of dumping leaders when they become unpopular.

"Clearly, he is in trouble," said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. "The question is whether that trouble is terminal or not.

"I doubt whether he is in any immediate danger — he will still be there by Christmas. But I think the new year will be an interesting few months."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Boris Johnson, New COVID Regulations, Conservative Party
Vaccine passes are now common in a number of European countries, but Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has held out implementing them. In this photo, members of the public queue for vaccinations and booster vaccinations at St Thomas' Hospital on Dec. 14, 2021, in London, England. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images