Sajid Javid’s parallel statement in the Commons to Boris Johnson’s press conference on the government’s plan for unlocking drew the same criticisms about failing to protect the vulnerable and bowing to Tory backbench pressure. He did get a ‘hallelujah’ from one such backbencher as he spoke of the end of social distancing. But the health secretary faced anger from the opposition benches about the decision to leave mask wearing up to the public and businesses at a time when cases are rising. Green MP Caroline Lucas compared Covid restrictions to road safety laws, asking why a similar approach to the speed limit couldn’t be taken to mask-wearing.
Masks, which were dismissed by the experts at the start of the pandemic, have now become a symbol of how much individuals and governments care about vulnerable people and the health service. But Javid’s argument was that society needs to learn to live with Covid and ‘now is the best time to do that, because of the defence that has been built by the vaccine’.
What society may find even harder to learn to live with over the next few years is the knock-on impact of Covid on the NHS. It is the case that the health service, which celebrated its 73rd anniversary today, was protected during the pandemic in that it didn’t collapse. But this came at a cost to anything that wasn’t Covid. Waiting lists, already on the rise, have shot up. Javid acknowledged that today, and didn’t sugar coat the situation. He told Tory MP Julie Marson:
‘The backlog is already at five million, and as I have said today, it is unfortunately going to get a lot worse before it gets better. I think we can all understand why, but today’s announcement will certainly have helped in our march to clear the backlog. My hon. Friend will know that the Government have given significant additional funding, in the billions, to help with that, but there will be a lot more to come in dealing with the priorities, especially cancer.’
There is, though, a consensus that the government has much more to do, especially in the forthcoming spending review, before it can say that this backlog is in hand. In a new podcast series, Building Back, I’ve been exploring how – and if – the NHS can recover from Covid and clear those long waiting lists. Do have a listen here.