Sajid Javid has said he will carry a face mask with him for the “foreseeable future” and will continue to wear one in crowded spaces, as Boris Johnson announced rules on face coverings are set be torn up later this month.
The new health secretary also insisted the government was “very comfortable” with the planned move to lift all remaining Covid restrictions in England on 19 July, despite forecasts of over 100,000 daily cases later in the summer.
In a move branded “reckless” by Labour, social distancing will be scrapped and the legal requirement to wear a face mask will be lifted, with individuals instead being asked to take personal responsibility for making their own decisions.
As unions and city mayors urged the government to retain face covering rules on public transport, Mr Javid declined to answer whether masks were an effective tool against Covid-19, instead arguing the rollout of the vaccine had “severely weakened” the link between infections, hospitalisations and deaths.
“We are of course very comfortable with the decisions that we’re announced,” he insisted on Sky News.
“I fully understand why many people will be anxious, they’ll want to be cautious and that is why other protections remain in place, but the vaccines are working.”
Pressed on what circumstances he would wear a mask, the health secretary replied: “For the foreseeable future I’ll be carrying a face mask with me, I think that’s a very responsible thing for anyone to do, as I’ve said the pandemic is not over.”
“If I’m in a crowded or enclosed space, in fact I’d wear one if I was next to someone who felt uncomfortable with us not wearing face masks — that’s what I mean by personal responsibility,” the health secretary added.
Mr Javid’s comments came as one of his colleagues, the Conservative MP Miriam Coates, told LBC radio in a heated exchange that she wouldn’t wear a face mask on public transport and insisted: “Freedom is very important. I think showing our faces is part of being human.”
However, according a to a YouGov poll, a clear majority of the public do not share Ms Coates’ view, with 71 per suggesting that face masks should remain mandatory on public transport. A further 66 per cent said the use of face coverings should continue in shops for a further period after restrictions are lifted.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the former cabinet minister and chair of the Commons Health Select Committee Jeremy Hunt, also urged caution around “using the language of irreversibility” when lifting remaining restrictions because there is still a high number of infections worldwide.
“At the moment, the projections are that the deaths from Covid will actually be less than some of our worst years for flu,” Mr Hunt said.
He added: “When you have that kind of change, I think it’s reasonable to change the social contract to one of cooperation, rather than compulsion.
“But I think we have got to be careful about using the language of irreversibility, because we still have 350,000 new infections every day across the world, there is still room for the vaccine-busting variants that we are all worried about. So we have to be on our guard and recognise that things may sadly yet change.”
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