Boris Johnson Insists He Isn't "Throwing Caution To The Wind" As Government Prepares To Axe All Covid Rules
Boris Johnson has insisted that he isn't taking a gamble with public health as he prepares to drop all coronavirus restrictions as soon as this week, including the requirement to self-isolate if you catch the illness.
The Prime Minister is expected to confirm next week that the government is doing away with all remaining Covid rules and that free access to tests for the whole general public will come to an end.
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday morning, he insisted he was "certainly not asking people to throw caution to the wind" and that "it's very important we should remain careful".
However, he said that the UK had entered a "different world" when it comes to Covid, in which vaccination and pharmaceutical treatment will be used instead of legal restrictions to control the virus.
"We now have reached a stage, thanks to the efficacy of the vaccine rollout, where we can shift the balance away from state mandation and banning certain course of action, in favour of encouraging personal responsibility," he told presenter Sophie Raworth.
Johnson said testing will continue at a "low level" in this era of "living with the virus", arguing that the government cannot justify continuing to spend £2bn each month on free tests while both the number of Covid cases and number of people hospitalised with the illness continue to fall.
"It is important that people should feel confident again and people should feel able to go back to work in the normal way," he said. "I really want to see our country getting back on its feet."
However, the Prime Minister was warned this morning by Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting that the government cannot expect Labour's backing for scrapping the remaining mitigations until he showed the scientific evidence supporting it.
Streeting accused Johnson of seeking to "declare victory before the war is over" on Covid so he can divert attention from partygate and the highly-anticipated Metropolitan Police report into lockdown parties, which is expected to be published in the coming weeks.
“The whole decision-making process in Number 10 at the moment is being driven by the Prime Minister's political weakness and not public health, and that should concern all of us," Streeting told Raworth.
Streeting said Labour was deeply concerned by the plan to end the provision of free tests to the general public, likening it to a football team "being two-one up with ten minutes left to play and taking your best defender off the pitch”.
He continued: “I am very worried by reports that the Prime Minister is planning to end free access to testing because we’ve seen, particularly over Christmas and New Year, that people are keen to do the right thing, whether it’s protect family members, especially the elderly and vulnerable, or co-workers and friends. We know testing is popular, it’s a crucial defence."
Johnson refused to answer numerous questions from Raworth about the Downing Street lockdown party scandal, and whether he would resign as Prime Minister if found by the Met to have broken his own Covid laws during lockdown.
He repeatedly claimed he could not comment further while the investigation was ongoing, and attempted to shift the conversation to the West's efforts to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In an interview with Sky News, Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly defended the Prime Minister and said he shouldn't have to resign if hit with a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) over parties held in Downing Street during lockdown.
“I don’t think what the country needs right now is a vacuum at the centre of government," he told Trevor Phillips.
PoliticsHome reported on Saturday that while Johnson's staunchest allies believe he could survive a FPN from the Met, a number of Conservative MPs – across various factions of the party – said it would likely result in the 54 letters from MPs needed to trigger a vote of no confidence in him.
A former Cabinet minister told PoliticsHome: “His rhetoric is of someone who intends to tough it out, but if he’s found to have been in breach of his own law, he would be in a very difficult position.
“There’ll be a number of people who go to him and say: ‘Are you really going to do this?’.”
The Prime Minister told Raworth that Putin deciding to invade Ukraine was highly likely and that the Kremlin's plan to create a pretext for doing so was already underway.
He warned that a Russian invasion of its neighbour could be Europe's biggest war since World War Two. "People need to understand the sheer cost in human life that it could entail — not just Ukrainians, but for Russians and young Russians," Johnson said.
He said Russia would be hit hard by UK and US plans for tough economic sanctions, like banning Russian companies from raising money on their markets and using the pound and dollar.
Earlier this week, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that she had closed down the "golden visa" system, which for years had allowed wealthy Russians and other foreign elites to fast track a move to the UK if they promised to invest in the country, with immediate effect.
However, Johnson this morning admitted that economic sanctions alone, no matter how tough, "may not be enough to deter an irrational actor" like Putin. "Vladimir Putin is possibly thinking illogical about this and doesn't see the disaster ahead," he added.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe