Boris Johnson apologized after wrongly explaining his own government’s coronavirus restrictions, in a gaffe that will fuel growing criticism of his response to the pandemic.
“Apologies, I misspoke today,” the U.K. prime minister said on Twitter. It was the third time in three hours that government spokespeople had failed to be clear on rules being introduced at midnight Tuesday to combat the disease in northeast England.
The error, over where and when people can socialize, is likely to encourage a revolt by Johnson’s Conservative colleagues, who are unhappy ministers have imposed restrictions and new criminal offenses without debate in Parliament first.
Earlier on Tuesday, skills minister Gillian Keegan simply admitted she did not know the answer during a radio interview, while Johnson’s spokesman James Slack told reporters on a call that the details would be set out later.
When the premier himself was asked whether people in the north east could socialize with other households, he suggested they could, in groups of no more than six.
“In the north east or other areas where extra tight measures have been brought in, you should follow the guidance of local authorities, but it’s six in a home, or six in hospitality but as I understand it not six outside, that’s the situation there,” Johnson said.
Later he tweeted: “Apologies, I misspoke today. In the North East, new rules mean you cannot meet people from different households in social settings indoors, including in pubs, restaurants and your home. You should also avoid socializing with other households outside.”
The prime minister’s mistake could hardly have come at a more sensitive moment. He is facing a rebellion from within his own party over virus restrictions being imposed without a vote in Parliament, and the fact he could not explain the rules himself will boost his opponents ahead of a potential vote on Wednesday.
Talks are under way on a possible compromise between the government and the rebels, but no agreement has yet been announced.
Adding to the pressure for a compromise, Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the liaison committee, the umbrella group representing all of Parliament’s committees, wrote to Johnson saying lawmakers should be properly consulted.
“The idea that such restrictions can be applied without express parliamentary approval, except in dire emergency, is not widely acceptable and indeed may be challenged in law,” Jenkin wrote. “We trust the Government will accept a suitable amendment or agree a motion to that effect, at the earliest possible opportunity at or before the debate on Wednesday.”
More broadly, Johnson faces questions over his administration’s competence. Conservative members of Parliament are increasingly unhappy with his leadership and complain that he has made too many blunders already.
At his appearance in Exeter, southwest England, Johnson batted away questions from the media over his health, saying he was fitter than before he contracted coronavirus in March.
(Updates with context, detail starting in second paragraph.)