Health minister refuses to say virus is under control ahead of lockdown rules lifting announcement

Helen Whately says she and others are not comfortable wearing masks

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 05 July 2021 10:40
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Minister can't say what she would do under new rules

A department of health minister has declined to say Covid-19 is "under control" ahead of a government announcement about lifting lockdown measures.

Speaking on Monday morning Helen Whately accepted that case rates were rising and would continue to rise when restrictions on mask wearing and social distancing were removed.

Bu she said she wasn't comfortable wearing a mask, that restrictions had "downsides", and that the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths had been broken due to the NHS vaccination programme.

"We are going to see rates continue to rise: we're seeing rates rising now, and we know we're going to continue to see rates rise," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"What the NHS medical director said yesterday when he was interviewed on Andrew Marr's show is that while we expect to see rates continue to rise, we have weakened the link between cases and hospitalisations, and deaths.

"That's a critical difference now: so yes cases are going to continue to rise for a period, but we simply aren't seeing the same steep rise in hospitalisations as we're seeing in the past because of the vaccination programme."

Case rates have significantly increased in recent weeks, up 70 per cent in the previous seven days. Seven out of the top 10 regions for Covid-19 infection rates in Europe are now in the UK, according to the World Health Organisation's figures.

Deaths have stayed relatively low compared to previous waves, though some experts have warned of the dangers of so-called "long Covid" even in people for whom the disease is relatively mild.

It is also believed that new variants are most likely to emerge when the disease runs rampant – with concerns that a new variant could eventually be more resistant to existing vaccines.

Despite a cautious response from experts and a generally cautious public, Boris Johnson is keen to press ahead with removing the remaining measures and is expected to announce this later today.

Conservative MPs and some figures in government supporting media have been pushing for restrictions to be lifted – as well as a relatively small anti-lockdown movement with links to both those groups.

Ms Whately told broadcasters she "can't wait not to wear a mask" and said they caused problems, including for people who are hard of hearing.

"I'm looking forward to not having to wear a face mask so much as I have been and always have been over the last year: I think face masks have a real downside," she said, adding that she would not ditch her face covering completely.

When it was put to the minister that other countries were continuing with rules to suppress the virus, she said it was not in British culture to wear masks all the time.

"I don't think all cultures are the same and what I know personally, and I know others personally, aren't comfortable wearing masks all the time. As I've said there are downsides to masks, as there are downsides to many of the restrictions," the minister argued.

Asked on BBC Breakfast what she would do if, as reported, the guidance said masks were a matter of personal choice, Ms Whatley said she would simply follow the guidance. When it was put to the minister that this guidance would not specify what to do, she said: "I don't know what you're saying is actually what the guidance will be. There's nothing different I can say at this point."

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