The PM’s gaffe, hours after another cabinet member had failed to remember the same rules, came amid Parliament’s attempt to rebel against the decision-making process with which Johnson’s government imposes restriction measures.
The measures have also met with growing frustration from the public as the government tries to stem a sharp rise in infections.
While speaking at Exeter College in South West England on Tuesday, Johnson was asked to clarify whether people from different households in North East England would be able to meet outdoors in pub gardens from Wednesday, when new restriction measures would come into effect.
“In the North East and other areas where extra-tight measures have been brought in, you should follow the guidance of local authorities—but it is six in a home, six in hospitality but, as I understand it, not six outside,” Johnson said.
However, the new rule for North East England actually forbids people in the affected areas from meeting people outside of their household, support bubble, or childcare bubble.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said the prime minister is “grossly incompetent” not understanding his own rules.
“The government needs to get a grip,” she said.
Johnson corrected himself soon afterwards on Twitter.
“Apologies, I misspoke today,” he said. “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 socialising with other households outside.
“This is vital to control the spread of coronavirus and keep everyone safe. If you are in a high risk area, please continue to follow the guidelines from local authorities.”
A few hours before the PM’s blunder, Gillian Keegan, cabinet minister and Conservative MP for Chichester, South East England, was asked the same question. Keegan told BBC Radio 4 she didn’t know the rule for North East England, which is not her constituency.
“I’m sorry I can’t answer that question. I’m sure there are many people who could. I don’t represent the North East,” Keegan said.
The Coronavirus Act 2020, which became law in late March, gave the government unprecedented emergency powers to respond to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic without going through Parliament, which would review the act every six months to assess whether it should be extended.
The government has since been frequently criticized for its missteps, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) supply shortages, insufficient testing capacity, and most recently the local lockdown strategy, which Johnson himself once described as a “whack-a-mole” game, and which was criticized by an expert for being “incoherent and unsustainable.”
Anger is growing within Johnson’s Conservative Party over the most severe restrictions in peacetime history, which are destroying swathes of the economy.
“The price we will not pay is that we will not surrender parliamentary democracy and the rule of law in order to fight this virus—these things are too important,” said Steve Baker, one prominent rebel lawmaker in the party.
“We need prior approval of measures, major measures on a national scale and indeed a regional scale which take away people’s liberties,” Baker told the BBC ahead of a debate in the House of Commons on Johnson’s COVID-19 measures.
The first revision of the Coronavirus Act was due on Wednesday.
Conservative backbencher Graham Brady tabled an amendment, backed by over 40 cross-party lawmakers, to force the government to get parliamentary approval before any further national restrictions were imposed.
However, Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, did not allow Parliament to vote on the amendment on Wednesday, although he reprimanded Johnson’s government for disregarding lawmakers with its CCP virus measures.
“The way in which the government has exercised its powers to make secondary legislation during this crisis has been totally unsatisfactory,” Hoyle told Parliament, adding that some explanations the government had offered as to why it had bypassed Parliament showed a “total disregard” for lawmakers.
Just hours later, Health Minister Matt Hancock moved to head off the rebellion in Conservative ranks.
“Today I can confirm to the House [of Commons] that for significant national measures with effect in the whole of England or UK-wide we will consult Parliament, wherever possible we will hold votes before such regulations come into force,” Hancock told Parliament.
“But of course responding to the virus means that the government must act at speed when required and we cannot hold up urgent regulations which are needed to control the virus and save lives.”
After the government offered its olive branch to Parliament, lawmakers passed the extension of the Coronavirus Act, voting 330 to 24 in favor.
Britain, which has the worst official death toll in Europe, reported 7,143 new cases of the CCP virus on Tuesday, the highest single figure to date, and 71 deaths, the worst daily toll since July.
Reuters contributed to this report.