Sajid Javid, the new UK health secretary, said on Monday that the country must “learn to live” with Covid-19 in a bullish statement to MPs that confirmed the government’s plan to return England to economic normality on July 19.
In a sharp break with the tone of his predecessor Matt Hancock, Javid aligned himself with the views of many Conservative ministers who believe it is time to discard caution and reopen the country.
“No date we choose comes with zero-risk for Covid,” Javid said in his first House of Commons statement since returning to the cabinet on Saturday. “We cannot eliminate it, instead we have to learn to live with it,” he added.
Hancock was seen by some Tory MPs as being too cautious in his approach to lockdown restrictions, while Javid, who hails from the right of the Conservative party, appeared to place economic wellbeing on a par with health issues.
“My task is to help return the economic and cultural life that makes this country so great, while of course protecting life and our NHS,” he said.
Javid declared that data on Covid-19 vaccinations was heading in the right direction and that final coronavirus restrictions would soon be lifted in England: “We see no reason to go beyond July 19,” he told the Commons.
In spite of a sharp rise in the number of cases of the Delta variant first identified in India, Javid said that uptake of vaccines was “sky high” and that two-thirds of adults would have had both jabs by July 19.
The health secretary said the ending of restrictions on large gatherings and the opening of certain businesses, including nightclubs, would be a final and “irreversible” step.
According to the latest government data, the UK on Monday reported 22,868 coronavirus cases in the latest 24-hour period, the highest number since January, reflecting the spread of the Delta variant.
Three new coronavirus deaths were reported, while 1,505 people were hospitalised.
The rise in coronavirus cases is causing disruption in schools in England, as increasing numbers of pupils are sent home to self-isolate after some children tested positive for Covid-19. Department for Education figures for the week to June 19 showed 214,000 children were off school and self-isolating, with a further 9,000 at home having tested positive.
Javid acknowledged the surge in cases, adding that while deaths remained “mercifully” low, hospitalisations had increased, particularly in the north-east and south-west of England.
The vaccination programme has accelerated in recent weeks ahead of the planned July 19 reopening, as the government aims to offer all over-18s their first dose.
Labour health spokesperson Jonathan Ashworth pressed Javid to explain how the government would reduce infections.
“I want to see an end to restrictions, our constituents want to see an end to restrictions,” said Ashworth. “But I hope his confidence today about July 19 does not prove somewhat premature or even, dare I say it, hubristic.”
Health leaders urged Javid to adopt a cautious approach to lifting restrictions, warning that hospitalisations across the country remained a concern.
“Covid is the most pressing issue,” Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents healthcare organisations, told the BBC. “[Javid] needs to be a voice of caution in the cabinet in terms of the potential pressures in the health service.”
Heralding what are likely to be bruising negotiations with Chancellor Rishi Sunak over funding, Javid promised a “fair pay settlement” for NHS workers.
On social care reform in England, including funding, Javid said a “long-term, sustainable solution” was needed, adding: “That is something the government is absolutely committed to.”