Sajid Javid tests positive as health chiefs tell PM: don’t let Covid rip
Senior public health leaders from across the UK have accused Boris Johnson of “letting Covid rip” by relaxing legal restrictions on Monday, amid warnings that a growing wave of infections will intensify a summer NHS crisis. The rebuke comes as it emerged that England’s health secretary, Sajid Javid, was among those to have tested positive for Covid, despite being fully vaccinated. He said he had mild symptoms and was awaiting the results of a more accurate PCR test.
It creates a headache for the prime minister should Javid test positive again. Under test and trace rules, anybody who has been in contact with Javid in the previous 48 hours would have to self-isolate. The health secretary is understood to have visited Downing Street on Friday. That would leave Johnson in the uncomfortable position of spending so-called “freedom day” stuck inside No 10. Javid is also known to have visited a care home in recent days.
Johnson may be able to avoid isolation if he has been taking part in a pilot system that allows people to work by taking a daily test. Last week it was revealed that staff at three government departments had signed up to the pilot. However, Johnson risks being accused of double standards as the government continues to urge the public to isolate if they are told to do so.
His use of the scheme also risks angering Conservative MPs opposed to the strict isolation rules. There have already been calls from Tories to expand the scheme, warning that allowing ministers to use it creates a “them and us” approach.
Doctors and opposition MPs said Javid’s positive test, despite being double vaccinated, highlighted the additional risk to the 32% of adults and all children who had not had two jabs. Another 54,674 new cases were announced on Saturday, confirming numbers are back to levels last seen in January. A further 41 Covid deaths were also announced.
There has been widespread dismay from public health officials at the prime minister’s claim that people must “learn to live” with Covid-19 and “exercise their personal responsibility”.
In a letter to the Observer, all four of the UK’s independent public health bodies representing more than 130 public health directors in the UK, as well as environmental health teams and public health experts, warn: “Living with Covid-19 is not the same thing as letting it rip. We should proceed carefully not recklessly … The government must promote effective public health measures because personal responsibility will not be enough.”
Senior NHS figures are among those wanting Johnson and other leading ministers to do far more to stress the need to continue following guidance such as mask-wearing in crowded indoor settings. Some are threatening to speak out if more is not done, fearing that Monday’s lifting of legal social contact restrictions will encourage many to return to their pre-pandemic behaviour.
Dozens of the UK’s leading cancer charities joined forces to make a powerful joint plea to the public to keep taking measures that will help protect those most vulnerable to the virus.
Schools across England are closing early for the summer break or moving to online teaching as tens of thousands of pupils are forced to isolate at home as a result of rising infections.
The letter from public health experts states: “Nobody wants endless cycles of legal restrictions and lockdowns but the idea that we should be relaxed about rising case numbers is wrong and damaging to public health.”
Helping people to isolate if they have the virus is a vital tool for limiting Covid’s spread, they say, as well as wearing face masks indoors, socialising outdoors, working from home, opening windows and washing hands.
While guidance remains to wear masks and socially distance in hospitals, NHS chiefs are warning that staff are already being confronted by those refusing to wear masks or socially distance. Some trusts said they had been dealing with non-compliance for the past three weeks, even before the end of restrictions.
Many trusts were this weekend engaging in public campaigns calling for the public to continue to obey social distancing rules in their buildings. Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, called for the prime minister to step in.
“We need the prime minister, ministers, and national NHS leaders to step up to the plate and say why the NHS needs to retain these restrictions – to protect vulnerable patients – and there will be zero tolerance of people who either don’t follow those rules or abuse staff,” he said.
“Trust leaders understand why ministers might be reluctant to do that, because that might be seen to cut across the messaging about relaxing these restrictions more generally. But ministers have a clear duty to explain why these restrictions have to remain in place in healthcare settings and they need to protect NHS staff.”
Unions representing retail staff also made a last-minute plea to the prime minister to keep mask-wearing and social distancing in place in higher-risk settings. Paddy Lillis, general secretary of the shopworkers’ union Usdaw, said: “It’s not the role of our members to enforce rules. We welcome retailers continuing with safety measures, but that’s down to the goodwill of the public. We think [Monday] will make the situation much worse.”
Meanwhile, clinicians across the country told the Observer they were already facing huge pressures as rising Covid cases combine with huge levels of emergency admissions, reduced NHS capacity and a staffing shortage fuelled by a refusal to relax Covid isolation rules for health service staff. A government spokesperson said ministers were looking closely at this issue.
A government spokesperson said restrictions were being loosened because the vaccine programme has weakened the link between cases and hospitalisations.
They added: “The pandemic is not over and we should continue to move cautiously. Extensive guidance is in place setting out the measures people and businesses should consider to keep themselves and others safe, including keeping spaces well ventilated, and recommending people wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed places, as they do already.
“From Monday it will be up to organisations to set their own policy on face coverings. We will continue to provide the public, businesses, transport operators and other organisations with guidance on when people should consider wearing a face covering, and we recommend that people wear one in crowded and enclosed places, as they do already.”