Ministers are examining retaining some limited coronavirus measures in England — including offering organisers of large events the option of insisting on certificates for attendees to prove they are virus-free — as infections soared again but hospitalisations continued to lag far behind.
Sajid Javid, the new health secretary, told MPs on Monday that the country would have to “learn to live” with the virus as he declined to commit to lifting all remaining restrictions on July 19.
Officials close to discussions said that some measures could become a feature of life. These could include giving organisers of events such as festivals and theatres the choice to require a Covid-19 certificate, based on an existing NHS app, so ticket holders can show they have been double-jabbed or have had a recent negative test.
“We have to do this to facilitate international travel anyway,” said one person briefed on discussions, adding that in the event of a major new variant of the disease emerging certificates could become mandatory.
Javid and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, are working together to push for as great an economic liberalisation as possible after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was “very likely” the country could return “pretty much to life before Covid” on July 19.
However, in a sign that Johnson will have to contend with a restive faction of his own MPs if some curbs outlast what has been styled “freedom day”, Steve Baker, deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group, told the Financial Times: “Many hospitality businesses will not be viable until the social-distancing restrictions are off . . . An enormous range of our economy is still severely hamstrung by even these regulations.”
The government should “remove regulations entirely and trust people’s common sense because the alternative is a new way of living where all of us are constantly worried about how far we are from one another”, he added.
Apart from Covid certification, voluntary wearing of masks is likely to continue and ministers are weighing whether they should remain compulsory in certain circumstances, such as on public transport.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, is producing reports on social distancing and Covid certification to be published before July 19.
But some scientists and health leaders viewed the planned reopening date with trepidation as the latest data showed a sharp rise in infections across the UK, up almost 73 per cent in a week, even as hospital admissions grew just 10.7 per cent.
Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, accused Javid of “hubris”, warning that “unless things change and the increase in cases reverses, it is very difficult to see how it will be possible to remove all restrictions [on July 19]”.
Even if the rules were discarded, “I suspect few people will be convinced that the country has somehow become much safer overnight”, he added.
However, Andrew Hayward, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology and member of the government’s Sage committee, struck a more positive note, saying the steep growth in cases was “not surprising” given increased social mixing, incomplete vaccine coverage and the high transmissibility of the dominant Delta variant.
He added that a reduced hospital admission rate meant it was “very unlikely” the third wave would stretch the NHS as much and lead to as many fatalities as earlier waves.
“I am reasonably confident that the situation will not deteriorate sufficiently in the coming few weeks to overturn the plans to relax restrictions on July 19,” he said.
But Steven Riley, a professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial College London and a member of Sage’s modelling subcommittee SPI-M, warned the rise in cases and hospital admissions was likely to have a “long tail” which could coincide with government plans to unlock later in July.
Riley added that hospital admissions would continue to rise in the coming weeks — albeit slowed by increased vaccine coverage — but he said it was unclear what level of pressure on the NHS would be regarded as acceptable.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said that although uncertainties remained about the course of the pandemic, there were positive signs that the link between cases and hospitalisations had now weakened considerably.
That, she said, was clearly “giving the government the comfort that [reopening on July 19] might be, if not risk-free, a manageable risk”. This was “probably a fair assessment” if the NHS’s ability to treat all Covid patients was the only yardstick.
However, she warned of far wider pressures on the health system as it has sought to restore services postponed or cancelled at the height of the pandemic.
Danny Bryden, vice-dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, said she and her colleagues were seeing far fewer Covid patients in intensive care units compared with earlier points in the pandemic, “particularly in January when there was a lot of pressure”.
However, she warned it was crucial that those who had not yet been vaccinated did so to ensure intensive care units were not overwhelmed as the country opened up, noting there were pockets of the country where take-up remained worryingly low.