The government is working on plans that will set out how the UK can learn to live with Covid-19, the Health Secretary told the Health and Social Care Committee on Tuesday (25 February).
Sajid Javid said the plans will take into account the learnings from the past couple of years, and look at the long-term impact of Covid-19 on various aspects of society, including disruption to children’s schooling, work and the economy, as well as the effects of long Covid and the impact on mental health. The plans will also consider the role of pharmaceuticals in recovery going forward, including the future of vaccines, antiviral treatments and testing.
The Health Secretary said the plan would focus on how the government thinks the nation can learn to live with Covid-19, taking into account “what… we know is most effective, and then also understanding [from] the early days when we had the lockdowns, what are the knock-on non-Covid impacts of that as well”.
He told the committee it was important to think of Covid-19 in similar terms to the flu: “Just as flu doesn’t stop society and stop life, we must not let Covid do that any more.” The plan will feature input from across multiple departments as it looks at the impact of the virus on a number of policy areas, but will be led by the Department of Health.
The Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee had previously conducted a joint inquiry into the lessons learned to date from the coronavirus pandemic. They published a critical report in October 2021 that concluded there was a “need for an urgent and long-term strategy to tackle health inequalities”. Jeremy Hunt MP, the chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, and Greg Clarke MP, who chairs the Science and Technology Committee, said: “The UK response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes. It is vital to learn from both to ensure that we perform as best as we possibly can during the remainder of the pandemic and in the future.”
Despite calls to produce a firm plan for living and dealing with Covid-19 in the future, the government has faced criticism for failing to articulate a coherent strategy.
Concerns have also been raised that its current approach neglects the needs of those who are extremely clinically vulnerable, who may be at high risk of serious illness, death and being isolated from loved ones as a result of Covid-19 if the disease is allowed to move through society unchecked. Gemma Peters, the chief executive of Blood Cancer UK, criticised the government’s careless attitude to lifting restrictions. Speaking to The Guardian, she said: “It feels to me that lying behind the [lifting of restrictions] is the idea that probably everyone’s going to get it and everyone will be all right. In our community, that isn’t true. If more people get it, more people will die.”
During a speech to the Fabian Society earlier this month, Labour revealed its ten-point plan for “living with Covid”. It included:
- Retaining volunteer responders to support vaccinations (next winter)
- Prioritising tests and adapting them to the future
- Improving sick pay
- Boosting the UK’s role in vaccinating the world
- Prioritising children’s learning
- Starting military-style exercises as part of future pandemic planning
- Publishing a “roadmap” for future decision-making
- Transforming the NHS “front door”, leveraging Covid’s legacy to build resilience, and removing waiting lists
- Transforming social care
- Turbocharging research and innovation
On revealing the plans, Wes Streeting, the shadow health minister, said: “For the government, living with Covid is just an empty slogan with no plans. For some Conservative backbench fanatics, living with Covid means letting the virus rip. Both positions are very irresponsible. We need to be prepared to learn to live well with Covid.”
Hear from the UK’s leading politicians on the most pressing policy questions facing the UK at NS Politics Live, in London. Speakers include Sir Keir Starmer, Ben Wallace, Lisa Nandy, Sajid Javid, Professor Sarah Gilbert, Jeremy Hunt, Layla Moran and Andrew Marr. Find out more about the New Statesman’s flagship event on the 28 June here.