Why ministers stuck to 19 July for lifting England’s Covid rules

Analysis: a further delay in a bid to contain the rapid rise in the infection rate would present its own problems

“Freedom is in our sights once again!” Sajid Javid told Conservative MPs on Tuesday, as he announced that double-jabbed people will not be required to quarantine from 16 August if they come in contact with a Covid sufferer.

That mid-August date was the one concession to caution in a package of measures for “freedom day” that was more liberal than many at Westminster had expected, and has led Labour to accuse the government of being reckless.

Ministers willingly acknowledge that the approach they are taking, of lifting all restrictions at once, is a gamble, which might cause cases to surge – but they maintain that now is the moment to act.

“Whenever you unlock, there’s a third wave, right?” said one senior Conservative. Given what they regard as the political impossibility of leaving restrictions in place in the long term, the judgment became about which date was the least risky.

The 21 June moment initially set for step four of the roadmap in February was rejected, to give the NHS a chance to push up vaccination rates. But by 19 July, the government expects two-thirds of adults to have received both doses.

With most schools breaking up in the week of 19 July, that data also coincides with the “firebreak”, when school-age children, who remain unvaccinated, are away from their classmates for six weeks.

The government fears that if it pushes the reopening later, the resulting sharp increase in cases would start to crash into the usual autumn/winter increase in seasonal flu. Cooler weather and indoor socialising also make happy hunting grounds for the virus. “We know Covid loves winter,” as one government source put it.

So ultimately the “quad” of senior ministers opted to press ahead with 19 July. Perhaps more controversially, they opted for a full-blooded version of “freedom day” that will ditch almost all restrictions.

The outlines of the package announced on Monday were broadly agreed at a meeting of the quad – Javid, Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove – on Thursday, according to government sources, with key details including how and when the schools policy would be announced ironed out on Sunday.

The go-ahead was then given by the Covid-O cabinet subcommittee on Monday, before the wider cabinet was consulted.

Modelling presented to ministers before the decisions suggested that although infections could reach an unprecedented 100,000 a day, hospitalisations were likely to peak at a level lower than during the January wave.

However, though Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance ultimately agreed that reopening should go ahead, both have warned that contingency plans must be made for the autumn.

Several senior Tories suggested the presence of the more libertarian Javid around the table, instead of Matt Hancock, was likely to have tipped the balance towards a bolder approach.

Downing Street insists that his presence was not the deciding factor, pointing out that Boris Johnson has been insisting since before Hancock’s humiliation that the 19 July date would be a “terminus”.

But one government source conceded that “having the health secretary as cover definitely made a difference”. Another senior Conservative who knows the players well said it was evident that the decision had been reached without “the counterbalance of Matt”.

The prime minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings has repeatedly portrayed Johnson as anti-restrictions, and Conservative MPs have been increasingly vocal in calling for the public to be given the freedoms they were promised vaccination would bring.

Javid’s arrival appears to have cemented that view. The health secretary is such a fan of The Fountainhead, the libertarian fable by the American author and philosopher Ayn Rand, made into a 1949 film starring Gary Cooper, that he once confessed to reading the courtroom scene aloud to his future wife.

In it, the character played by Cooper in the film, Howard Roark, forcefully defends the right of individuals to make their own decisions, rather than be subordinated to “the collective”.

Javid’s aides insist he is motivated not by ideology, but a hard-nosed assessment of the costs of continuing restrictions, not just for the economy but for the NHS, which has built up a huge backlog of non-Covid work. And ministers appear to have taken the view, “If not now, then when?”

But by ditching masks – which polls suggest the public would like to keep in some circumstances – throwing open nightclubs and giving the green light to standing six deep in crowded bars, some more cautious Tories believe the government is setting itself up for yet another embarrassing U-turn.


Heather Stewart Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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