The health secretary has warned the public not to be “too optimistic” that the UK’s battle against Covid is coming to an end, as the number of infections rose once again.
The latest government data showed that Covid cases increased slightly to 27,734 on Wednesday, after seven consecutive days of falling figures.
“The truth is, when it comes to case numbers, no one really knows where they are going to go next,” Sajid Javid said on a visit to a vaccination site in London.
“We’ve already seen with the Delta variant, a new variant that emerged over the last year, that’s more infectious than the previous one, that things can change. And so, I think it’s important to remain cautious, not get too optimistic.”
It follows comments from an unnamed minister who told the Daily Mail that the Covid crisis was “all over bar the shouting” and was on the verge of becoming “something you live with”.
But Boris Johnson insisted it was “far, far too early to draw any conclusions” from the recent fall in cases, telling LBC on Wednesday that the spread of the virus “still presents a significant risk”.
And vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi confirmed that self-isolation rules for Covid-19 contacts would definitely be staying in place until 16 August. He argued that the requirement was “an important precautionary measure” that would be needed until vaccine coverage was higher.
But despite calls for further caution, the government has decided to allow US and EU travellers who are fully vaccinated to enter without the need to quarantine – a move condemned as “reckless” by Labour.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Each individual US state does things differently. They don’t have a National Health Service that has a vaccine programme like we do with the certifications.
She added: “We risk going backwards again and our economy will suffer as a result of that. And we saw that with the Delta variant that came into the country.”
Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford also warned there was a “risk” of increased transmission from the UK government’s decision to let people from the US and the EU visit England. “We would have taken a different approach to international travel,” he said.
However, Mr Javid said he did not have “any concerns” about the move, claiming the success of the UK’s vaccine rollout had helped build up a “wall of defence”.
The health secretary added: “The countries that are part of today’s announcement, the US and European countries, they also have very successful vaccination programmes.
“I think it’s very sensible, therefore, to say that if you have been double-jabbed – that’s going to be a clear requirement, it will be checked – you can come into the UK from amber list countries and not have to self-isolate.”
Meanwhile, Mr Javid and Mr Johnson both said the government would end the requirement for Covid contacts to self-isolate when “pinged” on 16 August. The prime minister said the timetable was “nailed on”, with no possibility of a review date.
But questions were raised about the government’s plan to ease the “pingdemic” by expanding testing sites aimed at allowing key workers to avoid self-isolation.
Only around 200 of the 2,000 daily testing sites promised by the government are in operation, and hundreds of them will not be in place until the end of next month – two weeks after the 16 August date when the requirement will be lifted.
The Road Haulage Association’s managing director for policy and public affairs, Rod McKenzie, told The Independent it made the scheme “entirely pointless” and accused the government of “running the clock down” to 16 August.
The row comes as the health secretary insisted that young adults view vaccination as “liberating”. Ministers distanced themselves from Michael Gove’s suggestion that people who refuse jabs are “selfish”.
Asked if the Cabinet Office minister was right to say it was “selfish” to avoid getting jabbed, Mr Javid said: “What I’d say is: why not get vaccinated? For young people, they should think of vaccines as being liberating.
“Everyone wants to see a return to normal. But for young people who want to travel, it really helps you to get vaccinated, and that’s the way things are heading and those young people who want those vaccines, they can get them right here and now across the country.”
Mr Johnson also rejected Mr Gove’s claim. Asked if vaccine refuseniks were “selfish”, the prime minister told LBC: “No. I think that I would put it the other way round and say that if you get one you are doing something massively positive for yourself, for your family.”