Sajid Javid has said “no one really knows” what trajectory the Covid pandemic will take in the weeks ahead, as new cases across the UK rose after seven days of consecutive declines.
The latest Covid data, published on Wednesday, showed 27,734 people testing positive across the UK – up by 4,000 from a day earlier.
The increase in cases followed a week of sharp declines that had brought the number of new positive test results down by more than half from 54,674 on 17 July, just before most restrictions were relaxed.
Speaking at a vaccination centre in Little Venice, west London, the health secretary conceded, “the truth is, when it comes to case numbers no one really knows where they are going to go next.
“I hope that the falls that we’re seeing now are sustained. That’s of course what I want to see. But we’ve already seen with the Delta variant, a new variant that emerged over the last year, that’s more infectious than the previous one, that things can change.
“And so, I think it’s important to remain cautious, not get too optimistic.”
It is unclear whether the impact of the 19 July relaxation, when most restrictions were scrapped, has yet shown up in the data.
Earlier in the day, the prime minister had confirmed the 16 August date when quarantine will be scrapped for double-jabbed adults in England is now “nailed on”.
Ministers had last week declined to confirm the 16 August date. The environment secretary, George Eustice, said it was just “some kind of indication” and could move in either direction.
When the prime minister was asked on LBC on Wednesday if the date could change, however, he said there had never been any doubt about it.
“16 August is nailed on. There’s never been any question of a review date,” he said.
He was asked about comments made by Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, where he said refusing to be vaccinated was a “selfish act”. Johnson said: “I would put it the other way round. If you get one, you’re doing something massively positive, for yourself, for your family.”
There were 91 deaths within 28 days of a positive test result reported across the UK on Wednesday, down from 131 a day earlier. Deaths follow positive cases with a significant time lag.
When the more relaxed quarantine regime comes in on 16 August, double-jabbed adults identified as close contacts of a person who has tested positive for Covid will no longer have to self-isolate.
Instead they will be advised to take a PCR test. If it returns a positive result, they will be legally obliged to quarantine; if it is negative, they can go about their lives as normal.
Children will also be exempted from having to quarantine and advised to take a PCR test, despite the fact they are not being given the vaccine.
Ministers hope the move will help to reduce the significant disruption faced in the education sector in recent weeks, in which more than a million children were off school at the end of term.
The government also believe that releasing the double-vaccinated from the obligation to quarantine will help to create another incentive for those reluctant to get the jab to come forward.
The leaders of UK universities have pledged to step up efforts to see their students vaccinated “as soon as possible” by the early stages of the academic year starting in autumn.
In a joint statement the vice-chancellors and principals said they “want to get back to a more normal life and higher education experience,” and committed to working with public health officials to offer facilities such as pop-up vaccination sites on campus over the summer and start of term.
The effort was backed by the University and College Union. Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, said: “We would now welcome further commitments around health and safety.”
The shift to the more relaxed self-isolation rules was the one element of step four of the government’s unlocking “roadmap” that did not go ahead on 19 July, after ministers were told that self-isolation was important in constraining cases.
Explaining that decision to MPs earlier this month, Johnson said, “I’m afraid this is a highly contagious disease and we have to do what we can to stop this spread.”