UK politics & policy updates
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Sajid Javid, health secretary, has apologised after saying that people should no longer “cower” from Covid-19, but ministers were buoyed by a fifth consecutive day of falling infections in the UK.
As the government prepared to expand the list of critical workers exempt from self-isolation rules in England, new data showed the UK recorded 29,173 new cases on Sunday, down from 48,161 a week earlier.
Javid’s tweet over the weekend, which was later deleted, that people should live with the virus without fear reflected a growing bullishness in government circles that Boris Johnson was right to lift most remaining restrictions in England on July 19.
Case numbers in the UK are now 15.4 per cent down week-on-week, the first time they have dropped for five consecutive days since February. Ministers are saying the end of school terms in England just over a week ago may have helped.
They remain braced for upward pressure on case numbers later in the week as the effects of “freedom day” — including the reopening of nightclubs — start to feed through in the data.
But Javid’s comment that people should get vaccinated and learn to live with Covid “rather than cower from the virus” suggested ministers no longer expect a highly disruptive third-wave peak of 100,000 daily cases.
Following Labour criticism that he had insulted millions of people, Javid said: “I was expressing gratitude that the vaccines help us fight back as a society, but it was a poor choice of word and I sincerely apologise.”
The health secretary, who said he had “fully recovered” from his own bout of Covid, added: “Like many, I have lost loved ones to this awful virus and would never minimise its impact.”
Allies of Boris Johnson told the Mail on Sunday that, like his hero Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister was “not for turning” and believed that he was right to lift most restrictions last week.
“Barring the emergence of some terrible new variant, Boris is going to hold his nerve and stick to the plot,” said one.
Nevertheless, ministers are looking to introduce mandatory Covid vaccination passports at key events in the autumn after Johnson signalled that those attending nightclubs would be required to show proof that they had been double-jabbed.
Kit Malthouse, home office minister, described as “speculation” reports they might be needed at Premier League football matches. However ministers do want to increase pressure on young people to get vaccinated.
The biggest rise in infections has been among the youngest adults, the last age group to become eligible for the jab and the one where take-up has been lower. Government modellers have told ministers the third wave of coronavirus infections could peak in mid-August.
The short-term easing in case numbers could lift pressure on employers battling with staff shortages caused by a “pingdemic” of workers being told to self-isolate after coming into close contact with someone with Covid.
Ministers will meet on Monday to discuss extending the list of exemptions to rules on self-isolating, where employees can be tested to allow them to carry on working rather than staying at home for 10 days.
Government officials said they did not expect a “big expansion” of the list, which already covers some workers in the food sector along with border officials and workers in sectors such as energy, telecoms and transport.
“There will be more testing sites to support key workers,” said one official, adding that staff working on refuse collection could be among the categories added.
The parliamentary public accounts committee has warned that the “estimated lifetime cost” of the government’s response to the pandemic had reached £372bn by May 2021 and had exposed the taxpayer to “significant financial risks for decades to come”.
In two reports published on Sunday, MPs concluded that taxpayers had been left on the hook for an estimated £26bn of credit and fraud losses under the “bounceback loan scheme” for small companies. They also found that despite spending more than £10bn on supplies, the countries stockpile of protective equipment was “not fit for purpose”.