Boris Johnson is expected to rule out an early easing of coronavirus restrictions today, as ministers meet to review the latest data and assess whether there is scope to relax rules in England before 19 July.
Last week, Downing Street confirmed a decision would be taken on Monday, with Mr Johnson’s spokesman saying: “We will set out very clearly to the public the rationale for the decision we’ve made.”
The announcement will be delivered in parliament by the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who on Sunday said he wanted to see a return to normality “as quickly as possible”.
But Mr Javid’s first appearance at the dispatch box since he quit as chancellor in February 2020 could be a difficult one, with Labour insisting the government still has “serious questions to answer” in relation to the events which led to Matt Hancock’s dramatic resignation at the weekend.
When the prime minister announced the delay in easing restrictions earlier this month he described 19 July as a “terminus” date for the removal of most COVID rules, but pledged to undertake a mid-point review to establish if the data allowed for it to be brought forward to 5 July.
Last week, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News it was “unlikely” to happen.
Last night, government sources suggested this was still the broad assessment, and Labour sources said they expected Mr Javid to confirm that 19 July remains the target date.
But following the resignation of Mr Hancock, who had been one of the most cautious voices in cabinet, there is pressure from some Conservative backbenchers for the government to move faster.
On arrival at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) yesterday, Mr Javid said: “We are still in a pandemic, and I want to see that come to an end as soon as possible and that will be my most immediate priority to see that we can return to normal as soon and as quickly as possible.”
That statement was seized upon by Peter Bone, Conservative MP for Wellingborough and Rushden, who told Sky News: “I think even from the opening remarks of the new health secretary he wants to get rid of restrictions as quickly as possible, which is something I entirely support.
“Maybe the previous secretary of state was more cautious in that regard.”
Iain Duncan Smith MP told Sky News he thinks Mr Javid should go ahead with the “bold move”, as the evidence of vaccines working to prevent hospitalisations and deaths has been “staggeringly strong” since the last review.
“I hope now this time Sajid Javid with a fresh mind on this will come to this with the evidence,” he said, which he claims shows we have “broken the link” between getting coronavirus and dying of the virus.
But other conservative MPs picked up on the difference between what Mr Javid said to television cameras as he entered the building, and the written statement issued by the health department later, which omitted the phrase “as soon and as quickly as possible”.
Marcus Fysh, Conservative MP for Yeovil, said on social media: “Health Department still up to their self-interested spin with no care for lives and livelihoods destroyed by their cruel and now superfluous lockdown authoritarianism.
“Release the restrictions tomorrow Sajid Javid and Boris Johnson, the vaccines mean we are no longer in a pandemic.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, however, said the difference between Mr Javid’s comments and the subsequent statement had caused confusion.
“What we’ve seen today already I’m afraid is confusion, because the incoming health secretary said he wants to open up as quickly as possible, the government has now rowed back on that”, he said.
“I don’t think it’s inspired confidence that already on day one, there’s been the health secretary saying his position this morning and then the government rowing back on it.”
Labour is also demanding answers from the government around several questions raised in the fallout from Matt Hancock’s resignation, including on how Gina Coladangelo’s appointment came about, her involvement with the awarding of COVID contracts, and why health minister Lord Bethell sponsored her parliamentary pass.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis yesterday told Sky News the government had launched an investigation to establish how the former health secretary came to be captured on CCTV kissing Ms Coladangelo in his office, and how that footage found its way to The Sun newspaper.