Rebel Tories have clashed with a health minister over the ban on gatherings of more than six people in England, arguing it doesn’t make sense.
The government easily won a vote on retaining the rule by 287 votes to 17.
Sir Graham Brady – one of 12 Tories to vote against the rule – told minister Helen Whately the “rule of six” was not based on scientific evidence.
Ms Whately hit back, saying the government could not allow coronavirus to “rip” through communities.
But the comment angered Tory former minister Mark Harper.
He said all MPs “want the government to be successful” in combating coronavirus, but they did not appreciate being accused of “wanting to let it rip and kill tens of thousands of people” every time they suggested an alternative strategy.
Labour agreed with many of the backbenchers’ points in the Commons debate, but the party abstained in the vote on the restrictions, which came into force three weeks ago.
However, five DUP MPs joined the Tory rebels in voting against the restriction.
There could be a bigger rebellion coming if MPs vote on England’s 22:00 hospitality curfew.
Tory rebels are confident that dozens of backbenchers would be prepared to retrospectively vote down the measure.
In the Commons debate leading up to the vote on the rule of six, MPs on all sides demanded to know why children had not been excluded from the restriction – as they have in Scotland and Wales.
Sir Graham, who chairs the influential 1922 committee of Tory MPs, said: “Can she (Ms Whately) share with us her estimate of the efficacy of the rule of six compared to that of a rule of eight, had that been introduced instead?
“Is the rule of six more or less effective than a ban on household mixing?”
He added: “These rules are a massive intrusion into the liberty and private lives of the whole British people, and they’re having a devastating economic effect as well, which will result in big job losses and masses of business failures.”
Tory MP Huw Merriman said he feared the rule of six would “do more harm than good” as people might end up ignoring rules “that do make sense” – adding he had not seen any evidence it would reduce rates of Covid-19.
Tory former minister Steve Baker added: “We’re hearing about people who are being destroyed by this lockdown. Strong, confident people, outgoing people, gregarious people, who are being destroyed and reduced to repeated episodes of tears on the phone.
“This is a devastating social impact on our society and I believe that people would make different choices were they the ones able to take responsibility for themselves.”
Shadow health minister Justin Madders reeled off a list of questions to Ms Whately on the policy, echoing many of the criticisms made by Tory and Lib Dem MPs.
He said Labour would support “whatever reasonable steps are necessary to protect the NHS and save lives”, but said the government was guilty of “mixed messages and confused communications”.
But Ms Whately said the rule of six gave “a clear steer” and made the guidance “simple and absolutely clear for everybody”.
She added: “We are also taking a path of on the one hand trying to enable a level of socialising for the sake of people’s quality of life, while taking steps to control the virus.
“That is where we have taken the position that the rule of six achieves that balance.”