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Sajid Javid Admits Risk From “Vaccine Resistant” Covid Variant But Defends Dropping Restrictions

Sajid Javid defended plans to remove further restrictions on 19 July despite cases expected to rise to 100,000 a day in the summer (Alamy)

5 min read

Sajid Javid said the government must maintain some coronavirus powers in case a “vaccine resistant” strain of Covid arrives in the UK.

With the highly transmissible Delta variant of coronavirus still spreading throughout the country, Javid admitted case numbers could reach 100,000 per day in the summer, but stressed the link between infections and hospitalisation and death “has been severely weakened”.

"By the time we get to the 19th, we would expect case numbers by then to be at least double what they are now, so around 50,000 new cases a day," he told BBC radio 4’s Today programme.

"As we ease and go into the summer, we expect them to rise significantly and they could go as high as 100,000 case numbers.

"We want to be very straightforward about this, about what we can expect in terms of case numbers.

"But what matters more than anything is hospitalisation and death numbers, and that is where the link has been severely weakened."

While the government has insisted that this month's easing of restrictions will be "irreversible," Javid did not categorically rule out a return to legal restrictions at a later date.

“I hope not, and that's certainly not in our plan,” he replied.

“But as I said yesterday, there are some powers that we are retaining particularly for local authorities to manage any potential future outbreak, but the one thing that no one can say for certain anywhere in the world is the future progression of the virus itself.

“We've seen how there's been variants already, and very damaging variants certainly in terms of how they can infect people, but there may be, and no one knows this, a variant that comes out in the future that is vaccine resistant.

“Which means that by definition that this wall of defence that we've built is no longer going to be there for us, and so we have to remain vigilant.

“That is also why we continue with a number of defences in law, so for example the control around our borders and the need to isolate from certain countries, the test and trace system.”

But the health secretary defended removing all significant Covid restrictions later this month, including the legal requirement to wear masks in public.

While retail, hospitality and public transport settings may still request face coverings, Javid said he plans to ignore such guidance after 19 July if, for example, he was on an uncrowded train. 

"If I was on the West Coast mainline going up to my constituency, and it's late at night and there's about three people in the carriage, even if it said ‘we recommend a mask’, I wouldn't wear a mask and I think that's just a reasonable balanced judgement,” Javid said. 

He argued “that we can't forever remain in a state of having all these restrictions”.

Javid did however conceed there were some settings in which he would wear a mask, including a shopping centre.

“I would say I will carry a mask with me for the foreseeable future, I think that's a sensible thing to do," he said. 

“And if I'm in a crowded enclosed space, I will wear a mask.”

Asked whether opening up further from lockdown would “increase the scope for that to happen”, the minister said problems are likely to come from a variant originating in another country, and “our border system will protect us to some degree of that”.

He added: “But we can't pretend that you can build a fortress against any future variants, but what we can do because of the success of our vaccine programme is to start easing a lot of the restrictions.

“Not all the restrictions, but a lot of them, because we do need to start learning to live with Covid in a way that we live with flu, for example, and other diseases, and manage it so we can get on with something that's a bit more normal.”

Javid said he understood why those two are immunosuppressed will feel less safe after 19 July when fewer people wear masks, but argued that restrictions could not be permanent. 

“I think everyone would understand that we can't forever remain in a state of having all these restrictions that are having such a detrimental impact on on society in so many other ways.

“And not just the economic, the educational impacts, but also as health secretary, as I said I think about all the health impacts.

“It's just not possible to continue to have restrictions that when you can justify removing them because of the vaccine and the treatments that we have.”

Javid also hinted he would set out changes to the system of self-isolation in a statement to the Commons after criticism those who have two vaccine doses still have to quarantine.

"We will have a more proportionate system of test, trace and isolate, and it is absolutely right that those that have been double jabbed that we can take a different approach than the one we take today," he told BBC Breakfast.

"In terms of what we will be doing exactly, you will have to wait for my statement to Parliament later today."

Immediately afterwards the education secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to formally announce plans to scrap the "bubble" system for Covid contacts in schools which has seen hundreds of thousands of pupils kept at home from 19 July.

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