Sajid Javid has said we can no longer “live in a world where the only thing we are thinking about is COVID” as he warned that seven million people have not come forward with health problems during the pandemic.
The new health secretary told Sky News the country must “take advantage” of the effectiveness of the vaccines and “learn to live” with the virus.
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“It is not about some number of deaths being acceptable, of course not,” Mr Javid said.
“What we are seeing is with rising case numbers – and yesterday I said we could see a doubling of case numbers by the time we get to 19 July – we are not seeing a corresponding increase in hospitalisations and death numbers.
“And that is because the vaccine is working, that is what the vaccine is for.
“And we can’t live in a world where the only thing we are thinking about is COVID and not about all the other health problems, not about our economic problems, or education challenges, and we have to make use of a vaccine that is thankfully working.”
The health secretary added that it is “shocking” to see “all the other health problems that have built up” during the pandemic.
“Some seven million people have not come forward during the pandemic for help from the NHS with their health problems – seven million people,” he said.
“Now just think about all the health problems that have been stored up and we need to treat that as a priority too – it cannot just be about COVID.”
Mr Javid’s comments came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed how he plans to “restore people’s freedoms” in England at a news briefing on Monday evening, ahead of the final stage of his roadmap out of lockdown.
The last step of lockdown easing is due to take place on 19 July, subject to the government’s four key tests being met, but a decision will be taken as to whether this will go ahead as planned in a week’s time.
Should step four proceed on 19 July, it will see:
• No more limits on social contact to allow people to gather in groups of any size
• The removal of the “one metre-plus” rule in almost all settings, apart from specific places such as airports
• All remaining businesses, including nightclubs, able to re-open
• No capacity caps on large-scale events, such as sports matches, theatre shows or concerts
• No more legal requirement on wearing face masks in shops or on public transport
• The government will no longer require people to work from home
• No more limits on the number of people who are able to visit care home residents
Speaking at the news briefing on Monday, the PM warned a further delay to ending lockdown measures would “run the risk of either opening up at a very difficult time when the virus has an edge” or “putting everything off to next year”.
He added: “We must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves: when will we be able to return to normal?”
Mr Javid told Sky News he is “very comfortable” with the PM’s decision to drop almost all COVID restrictions as the country is in a position to do so due to the successful vaccine rollout.
However, the health secretary warned that there is “a real risk” of a “vaccine-resistant variant” emerging at some point.
“One concern that is still there, and this is throughout the world, is that there will be new variants,” Mr Javid said.
“And I think no one can rule out there won’t be further variants of COVID and no one will know what they will look like.
“There is a risk, and I think it is a real risk, of some kind of vaccine-resistant variant. There is no sign of that yet anywhere, but I think it is something that no one can rule out.”
He added that is why it is “sensible” for the government to retain some powers.