The new health secretary has said there are ‘compelling’ health arguments to lift Covid restrictions on 19 July.
His first priorities are for the UK to ‘learn to live with Covid-19’ as it does with flu and tackle the backlog in elective care, Sajid Javid added.
But the BMA has urged the Government to keep some ‘targeted’ measures, including mask wearing on public transport and in healthcare settings, amid an ‘alarming’ rise in cases.
Writing for the Mail on Sunday this weekend, Mr Javid said the UK is ‘on track for 19 July’ – when Covid restrictions are set to ease after a four-week delay.
There are ‘compelling’ health arguments to lift lockdown, including the ‘vast’ elective care backlog and rise in domestic violence and mental health problems caused by the restrictions, he added.
He said: ‘The economic arguments for opening up are well known, but for me, the health arguments are equally compelling.
‘The pandemic has hit some groups disproportionately hard. Rules that we have had to put in place have caused a shocking rise in domestic violence and a terrible impact on so many people’s mental health.’
He added: ‘We protected the NHS to make sure it was there for everyone who needed care. The steps we took saved countless lives but also led to the build-up of a vast “elective” backlog – checks, appointments and treatments for all the less urgent, but often just as important, health issues.’
Mr Javid said that the NHS must build on changes brought in during the pandemic to meet the demand, such as ‘using NHS 111 to direct patients to the most appropriate setting to receive care, expanding the use of our pharmacies and encouraging more people to use the NHS app’.
An estimated seven million fewer people than normal have come forward for healthcare, so the NHS will face ‘enormous pressure’ even if only some of that demand returns, he added.
Tackling the backlog in elective care is one of ‘two immediate challenges’ identified by the health secretary.
He said: ‘The first is how we restore our freedoms and learn to live with Covid-19. The second is to tackle the NHS backlog – something that we know is going to get far worse before it gets better.’
However, the Government must also ‘be honest with people about the fact that we cannot eliminate Covid’ and that cases will ‘rise significantly’ when lockdown is lifted, he added.
He said: ‘I know many people will be cautious about the easing of restrictions – that’s completely understandable. But no date we choose will ever come without risk, so we have to take a broad and balanced view.
‘We are going to have to learn to accept the existence of Covid and find ways to cope with it – just as we already do with flu.’
But the BMA has warned that the Government must not ‘throw progress away’ and should keep some measures in place.
BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘As case numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate due to the rapid transmission of the Delta variant and an increase in people mixing with one another, it makes no sense to remove restrictions in their entirety in just over two weeks’ time.
‘The promise was to make decisions based on data and not dates, and while we were pleased to see the Government react to data in delaying the easing on 21 June last month, ministers must not now simply disregard the most recent, damning, numbers by rushing into meeting their new 19 July deadline.’
He added: ‘We have made excellent progress with both the vaccination campaign and individual action from people across the country over the last 18 months, and the Government must absolutely not throw this away at this critical juncture.’
The BMA has proposed a set of ‘sensible, targeted measures’ designed to ‘help prevent transmission of the virus while having a minimal impact on people’s daily lives’, including:
- Ongoing requirements to wear masks in enclosed public spaces such as public transport and healthcare settings
- Significantly improved public messaging on social distancing
- Greater guidance, support and enforcement for businesses and educational settings to ‘create sustainable, Covid-secure environments’
- Legal standards on ventilation alongside financial and other support to implement the requirements ahead of autumn and winter.
Last week, Mr Javid said he saw no reason to delay reopening beyond 19 July in the first statement to Parliament as health secretary.
He also said it is his priority to restore the country to ‘normal’ as soon as possible after being appointed to the role following the resignation of Matt Hancock in the wake of leaked pictures showing him kissing an aide.
The Labour party has said that the appointment of Mr Javid as the new health secretary is akin to ‘putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop’ given his record on austerity.