Are Covid restrictions coming back this autumn? It’s a far from settled question as we move into the colder, influenza-dominated months. But if there are those calling for tiers and lockdowns in winter, it seems increasingly likely that they’ll be coming up against, among others, the new health secretary.
Gone are the days of the health secretary being in lock-step with Sage. In today’s Policy Exchange fringe event with Sajid Javid, chaired by The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, the health secretary (now 100 days into the role) had short and sharp words for the scientific advisory committee, particularly when it came to its scenarios earlier this year – which overshot the number of hospitalisations that would result from reopening in the summer, with the majority of the population vaccinated.
Asked by Fraser about Sage scenarios (above) that showed hospitalisations spiralling post ‘freedom day’ Javid said of the independent committee: ‘They’re entitled to come to their own decisions. And I’m entitled not to listen to them.’ 'Had I listened’, he went on to say, ‘we certainly wouldn't be doing this' and waved to the packed fringe audience.
The event covered a range of health and social care topics, from the impact of lockdowns, to the government’s ultimate (though still not concrete) rejection of vaccine passports. ‘I’m driven by the evidence’ said Javid. Other countries’ ‘motivating factor was to significantly increase their vaccine take-up rate. We’ve been much more fortunate… we don’t have anything like the kind of hesitancy you see in France... the bar to do it has to be very, very high. In a free country, if you’re going to do something like that, you have to have the evidence to back it up.’
For Javid, though, this is not just a practical point, but a principled one as well. ‘As Conservatives, we’re a freedom-loving party. Our default position should never be state intervention.’
The impact of lockdown on other conditions was a big focus for Javid, who raised the fact that 7 million fewer people had joined NHS waiting lists, and what his team estimates to be ‘100,000 missed cancer diagnoses’ during the pandemic, which he starkly noted would result in lives lost.
Still, despite his broadly liberal takes across Covid and the future of the health service, Javid stuck by the government’s mandate for care home workers to be vaccinated. ‘You’re doing a job that’s looking after some of the most vulnerable people in society. If you haven’t gotten the vaccine’ because of misinformation, ‘you’re just going to have to leave and get another job,’ he explained. Whether the care home sector could handle the loss of labour after compulsory vaccination – especially considering the current labour shortage crisis –remained largely unanswered.