Close contacts of people in England who have tested positive for Covid will not have to self-isolate if they have received both their vaccinations, or if they are under 18, Sajid Javid has announced to the Commons.
The policy will come into force from 16 August. Adults will need to have had their second vaccination at least 10 days beforehand, the health secretary told MPs on Tuesday.
“We will soon be able to take a risk-based approach that recognises the huge benefits that the vaccines provide both to people who get the jab and their loved ones too,” Javid said.
People will, however, still be obliged to self-isolate as before if they test positive for Covid.
The end to self-isolation for those under 18, more details of which were given by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, comes after figures showed the number of children missing school in England because of Covid last week shot up by 66%, with 641,000 out of the classroom.
In another indication of his more bullish approach to reopening, Javid began his announcement by telling MPs that “freedom is in our sights once again” and it was time to end top-down rules and rely more on “personal responsibility and common sense”.
The health secretary said the pace of vaccination had weakened the link between case numbers and hospitalisations and deaths. “That protective wall means that the odds have shifted in our favour and we can look afresh at many of the measures that we have had to put in place,” he said.
Responding for Labour, the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said the protective wall was “only half built”, saying this involved not only people who were not yet fully vaccinated but also that people with both vaccinations could still contract and transmit the virus, as suggested by emerging evidence from Israel.
In media interviews earlier in the day, Javid said the lifting of most lockdown rules could result in Covid infections rising above 100,000 a day over the summer.
Ashworth said: “With infections at 100,000 that translates to around 5,000 people a day developing long-term chronic illness. What will the long Covid waiting list look like by the end of the summer?
“He justifies allowing infections to climb so high by pointing to the weakened link between hospitalisation and deaths. And that we are building a protective wall. But the wall is only half built.”
Ashworth repeated Labour’s demand that the government reconsider the complete removal of all mandatory mask rules. Javid rejected this, saying that with the scale of vaccinations “you need to start moving away from these restrictions”.
The statement came a day after Boris Johnson announced the expected move towards almost no formal rules to combat Covid in England from 19 July, including the end of mandatory mask use and social distancing, or any restrictions in hospitality and entertainment venues.
Asked in his earlier interview about government projections that infection rates were likely to reach 50,000 a day by 19 July, Javid accepted it was “fair to say” that even this figure could double or more. The highest daily infection rate for the UK recorded so far was just over 81,000, in late December.
“Because this is uncharted territory for any country in the world, as you go further out, week by week, the projections are even less reliable,” he said. “As we ease and go into the summer, we expect them to rise. They could go as high as 100,000. We want to be very straightforward about this in what we can expect in terms of case numbers. But what matters more than anything is hospitalisation and death numbers.”