Last-minute delay to Cabinet meeting to sign off PM’s Covid plan

Some ministers had already arrived in Downing Street.

21 February 2022

A Cabinet meeting where the Prime Minister’s plan to lift remaining coronavirus laws in England was set to be agreed has been delayed.

The PA news agency understands the meeting, due to take place on Monday morning, has been shifted to the afternoon while Boris Johnson receives more briefings.

But the plan – which includes the end of the legal obligation to isolate after a positive test – is still expected to be signed off.

Cabinet Meeting
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi arrives in Downing Street, London, ahead of a Cabinet meeting (Aaron Chown/PA)

Some ministers had already been photographed arriving in Downing Street for the meeting.

There have been reports that the plan could include the ending of free coronavirus tests for the majority of people, which could be a point of contention between senior ministers.

On Sunday, Mr Johnson told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme the UK spent £2 billion on testing in January alone and that such high expenditure did not need to continue.

Business minister Paul Scully echoed this on Monday and told Sky News: “If you think what that £2 billion might go towards, there’s a lot of other backlogs in the NHS, other illnesses in the NHS, that that money could otherwise go for.

“So for every person that is worried about a test, there may be another person that’s worried about a cancer diagnosis, for instance.”

Mr Scully said the public should not “work and live under Government diktat for a moment longer than is necessary” ahead of the expected announcement.

He told Sky News: “Infections are coming down quite rapidly, the hospitalisations and deaths are following as well – they tend to lag behind, obviously, the case numbers – but nonetheless you can see the trend within that.”

He said Mr Johnson will be “looking at the best advice possible but getting the balance right”.

Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain he added the Government cannot “wrap people up in cotton wool for the rest of our lives”.

Mr Johnson was expected to update MPs in the Commons on the plans on Monday afternoon before holding a press conference in the evening.

He said the proposal would be about “finally giving people back their freedom” after “one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history”.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group at the University of Oxford, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the UK has a “wall of immunity now” thanks to the vaccines “but the decision about when and how to reduce restrictions is enormously difficult”.

Ukraine – Russian tensions
Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Matt Bunham/PA)

He said the benefits of restrictions are obvious in “reducing chains of transmission, the risks of people getting infected, the burden on the health system”, but the harms of restrictions are harder to assess.

“They include things, just from a health perspective, like the impact on hospitals of having staff self-isolating, the inability to perform operations, there will be surgery cancelled today that may be critical for people because of staff who are off work during that period; the impact on education, on the workplace and the economy.

“The impacts on the economy and mental health will have longer-term consequences. So if we could find a measure that brings all of that together, we could work out the exact right moment (for lifting restrictions).”

Sir Andrew said “there isn’t a right or wrong answer to this because we don’t have a measure that helps us get there”.

However, Professor Robert West, a health psychologist from University College London and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights group on Behaviours (Spi-B) which feeds into Sage, told Times Radio he thinks the Government has moved to “abdicate its own responsibility for looking after its population”.

Speaking in a personal capacity, he said one in 20 people has Covid-19 and 150 people are dying each day.

“It looks as though what the Government has said is that it accepts that the country is going to have to live with somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000 Covid deaths a year and isn’t really going to do anything about it,” he said. “Now that seems to me to be irresponsible.”

While Mr Scully suggested Covid should be treated like “any illness” in terms of staying at home.

“I would say that it’s like any illness, frankly, any transmissible illness that you would say stay at home,” he said, but he admitted “it’ll be down to themselves or down to their employer”.

He said workers should contact Acas if they “really think that there is a detriment to them”.

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