Only clinically vulnerable children and those living with vulnerable adults will be initially offered Covid vaccinations, the vaccines minister has said, as he urged people to be extremely cautious on the day almost all lockdown rules ended in England.
Nadhim Zahawi also defended Boris Johnson for initially deciding to avoid self-isolation under a pilot scheme involving daily tests, before U-turning. “Nobody’s taking anyone for fools,” the minister said.
And in yet more complications for the government on what was initially billed as “freedom day”, Zahawi defended the continued use of test-and-trace rules even on double-vaccinated people, after the head of the supermarket chain Iceland said about 4% of his workforce were currently absent because of coronavirus.
Speaking to BBC One’s Breakfast programme, Zahawi said he would make a statement to the Commons later on the advice from the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation about Covid vaccines for children aged 12 and above.
“The JCVI looked at vulnerable children, they will recommend that vulnerable children should be protected,” Zahawi said. “Children living with vulnerable adults should also be protected, and of course 17-year-olds who are close to their 18th birthday should also be protected.
“They’re keeping under review healthy children. There’s lots of good data from America on first doses for healthy children, but there’s obviously a gap for those same children getting second doses.”
With daily confirmed Covid cases across the UK already near or above 50,000 and expected to rise significantly further as rules on masks and distancing are removed and businesses such as nightclubs reopen, Zahawi defended the decision to go ahead with the final stage of reopening, but repeated the message of caution.
“It’s right to be careful but it’s also right to get our country back together, opening up, and to as close to normality as possible,” he said
“Think carefully would be my advice. Look at what supermarkets have done, look at what Transport for London has done and other parts of our transport system, our metro mayors. They’re being sensible, and saying, in crowded indoor spaces you should be wearing your masks.”
The buildup to the end of most restrictions on Monday has been in part overshadowed by the decision by Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to initially try to avoid self-isolation, with a furious backlash triggering a U-turn.
After Sajid Javid tested positive for Covid, Downing Street initially said that while Johnson and Sunak had been contacted by NHS test and trace due to face-to-face meetings with the England health secretary, they would not self-isolate and would instead participate in a pilot scheme involving daily tests, a decision soon reversed.
Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Johnson “considered whether they would subscribe to the pilot scheme but rightly opted for self-isolation”, saying he “wanted to make sure he sent a very clear message to the nation”.
Asked why, if the idea had only been considered, No 10 had sent out a press release saying Johnson and Sunak “will be participating” in the pilot scheme, Zahawi said: “Nobody’s taking anyone for fools. Every decision the prime minister has had to make through this pandemic has been a tough one.”
Earlier on Today, Richard Walker, the managing director of Iceland, said the chain had more than 1,000 staff self-isolating.
“It’s about 4% of our total workforce of 30,000,” he said. “In fact, we have just announced employing an additional 2,000 people on top of that to give us a deeper pool of labour, because so many people are now getting pinged.”
He added: “A number of stores have had to close and the concern is that as this thing rises exponentially, as we have just been hearing, it could get a lot worse, a lot quicker. We have got a 50% increase week-on-week in terms of people off and it’s a 400% increase compared to mid-June.”
Under government plans, people who have received both vaccinations will be able to avoid such self-isolation from 16 August. But Zahawi told Today the “clinical advice” was that this should not be brought forward, as the delay would give time for more people to be vaccinated.