Coronavirus restrictions will not be lifted early on 5 July, the new health secretary has confirmed, but Sajid Javid has told MPs he sees “no reason” for measures to last beyond 19 July.
In his first Commons statement since succeeding Matt Hancock, Mr Javid told MPs that while ministers have decided not to bring forward step four of England’s roadmap out of COVID-19 restrictions, things are looking good for 19 July.
“We see no reason to go beyond 19 July,” he said.
Mr Javid said no date for easing restrictions is risk free and the UK has to “learn to live with” the virus.
“We also know that people and businesses need certainty, so we want every step to be irreversible. Make no mistake, the restrictions on our freedoms must come to an end,” he continued.
“We owe it to the British people who have sacrificed so much, to restore their freedoms as quickly as we possibly can and not to wait a moment longer than we need to.
“With the numbers heading in the right direction, all while we protect more and more people each day, 19 July remains our target date.
“The prime minister has called it our ‘terminus date’. For me, 19 July is not only the end of the line, but the start of an exciting new journey for our country.
“At this crucial moment in the fightback against this pandemic, we must keep our resolve and keep on our road map to freedom so that together we can beat this pandemic and build back better.”
Fielding questions from MPs after delivering his opening remarks, Mr Javid said there was “clear evidence” that the vaccination programme was breaking the link between people contracting the virus and ending up in hospital or dying.
“The more evidence we see of that, the more confident that can make us that we’ll put this pandemic behind us,” he added.
“That’s what gives me confidence about 19 July and all the data that I’ve seen – yesterday I sat down and discussed it with the experts, some of my colleagues – it’s very clear that we’re heading in the right direction and I am very confident about that date, 19 July.”
When he announced a delay to the original date of 21 June, Boris Johnson said a review would take place to see if action could be taken two weeks sooner.
But the government has decided to wait and stick to 19 July.
Speaking earlier today, the prime minister said there were some “encouraging signs” in the data but ministers wanted to “use the next three weeks or so really to complete as much as we can of that vaccine rollout”.
Mr Johnson said another five million vaccine doses could be delivered by then.
And he reiterated his optimism about lifting restrictions on 19 July, adding: “With every day that goes by it’s clearer to me and all our scientific advisers that we’re very likely to be in a position on July 19 to say that really is the terminus and we can go back to life as it was before COVID as far as possible.”
Also speaking earlier, Mr Javid said it is his “absolute priority” to end restrictions as soon as possible and there will be “no going back” once they are removed.
Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth suggested the health secretary was being overly optimistic in his remarks.
“A word to the wise – I’ve responded to a lot of these statements these past 15 months,” the shadow health secretary told the Commons.
“I remember ministers telling us there was nothing in the data to suggest 21 June wouldn’t go ahead, I remember children returning to school for one day before the January lockdown, I remember ‘It will all be over by Christmas’, I remember ‘We will send it packing in 12 weeks’.”
Mr Ashworth said the UK could see 35,000 to 40,000 COVID cases a day if current trends continue, calling on Mr Javid to take action to “push infections down”.
“Vaccinations will do it eventually but not in the next four weeks,” he said.
Mr Javid acknowledged the scale of the task facing him, telling MPs: “There remains a big task ahead of us to restore our freedoms – freedoms that, save for the greatest of circumstances, no government should ever wish to curtail.
“So my task is to help return the economic and cultural life that makes this country so great, while of course protecting life and our NHS.”
The former chancellor and home secretary has returned to government 16 months after resigning amid a row with Downing Street about sacking his advisers.
Mr Hancock resigned as health secretary on Saturday.
His departure came after he admitted breaking social distancing rules, with leaked CCTV showing him kissing aide and former lobbyist Gina Coladangelo in his departmental office.
The images, published by The Sun, were from 6 May – more than a week before the easing of social distancing rules around close contact indoors for people from separate households.
Mr Javid paid tribute to his predecessor, saying in the Commons that Mr Hancock “worked hard throughout all these testing times”.
“He has achieved a great amount in the work that he did and I know he will have more to offer in public life – and I wish him the very best,” he said.