Isabel Hardman

Johnson urges caution ahead of final easing

Johnson urges caution ahead of final easing
(Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas-WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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How different will life be after 19 July? Not very, if the Prime Minister’s press conference this evening was anything to go by. As with Sajid Javid’s statement in the Commons earlier confirming the final step of the road map, Boris Johnson’s emphasis seemed muted. He said he expected people to continue wearing masks, working from home and generally not making the full use of the freedoms they are being given next week. Johnson warned that ‘this is not the end of Covid’, that he didn’t want the public to be ‘demob happy’ and that we ‘must be cautious’ as we take the next step out of the restrictions.

Significantly, he didn’t say the roadmap was ‘irreversible’ as he has in previous statements. In fact, he accepted that he couldn’t rule out the reintroduction of restrictions. He explained that he 'must protect the public and will not hesitate’ to use the powers that the government has in order to do this. This underlines the sense that life isn’t actually going to return to normal for quite a long time given there will not just be an ‘exit wave’ but also an autumn and winter wave, accompanied by a rise in other respiratory illnesses.

Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance were at the press conference to show their support for this approach. Whitty put a strong emphasis on the need to do everything slowly, also accepting that there is no perfect time to unlock. But he did suggest he wasn’t fully confident that one of the tests — that infections aren’t so high that the NHS risks being overwhelmed — would continue to be met. 

There is a debate within health circles about what ‘overwhelmed’ can really mean: does it include what is already happening in some hospitals, which is the cancellation of elective surgery because there are not enough staff or intensive care beds? Given the huge treatment backlog, the risk to day-to-day health care cannot be the sole criterion for continued freedom. Either way, we can have complete confidence that life in the NHS will not return to normal for at least a few years.