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Sajid Javid provoked roars of laughter when he won The Spectator magazine’s ‘comeback of the year’ award last week – and paid tribute to ‘the CCTV guy at the Department of Health’ who caught his predecessor Matt Hancock in the fateful clinch that enabled the return of the Saj to frontline politics.
After the ceremony was over, and while Mr Hancock – who was also at the event – headed to a Prohibition-style basement bar in Soho to dance to 1980s music, Mr Javid went home to deal with the latest plot twists in the Covid pandemic.
Yesterday’s announcement that two people in the UK have been found to be infected with the new Omicron Covid variant is being greeted with relative calm by Mr Javid and his officials: they are cautiously optimistic that the vaccine roll-out, combined with travel restrictions, PCR testing, the return of mask-wearing and advanced genome sequencing will remove the need for any more lockdowns.
‘We were the first country to identify the significance of this variant, we are talking every day about it and I am being constantly updated on it,’ Mr Javid says.
Yesterday’s announcement that two people in the UK have been found to be infected with the new Omicron Covid variant is being greeted with relative calm by Sajid Javid (pictured)
‘I think for something like that we should act very quickly. I spoke to the Prime Minister and he agreed absolutely.’
Mr Javid is speaking to The Mail on Sunday in his expansive Whitehall office to herald a planned week of health announcements, including a new national force of ‘NHS reservists’– modelled on the Army Reserve – made up of retired medics and logistic specialists who can swing into action if the NHS comes under strain in the winter, or if the booster vaccine programme needs supercharging.
He is also expected to set out measures to tackle the backlog of hospital appointments, which is now forecast to peak at an astonishing 13 million, and to deal with the endemic waste that saps the Health Service’s £162 billion annual budget.
His carefully prepared plans risk being scrambled by concern – which many experts think could be overheated – about the mutant Omicron.
But critically, Britain’s world-beating vaccine programme means that confidence is higher than it was with previous variants, such as Delta.
‘The good news is that we know a lot more about vaccines than we did at the start of the pandemic. The MRNA technology, which you find, for example, in the Pfizer vaccine, is very quick.
‘In theory the MRNA platform should be able to develop something for trial within days. Of course it has to be vigorously tested, but what we can say today is that vaccines can be developed in months now where pre-pandemic, if you’d asked me or anyone else, it would have been years.’
The contact tracing of people who have potentially been exposed to the new variant will be carried out by what Mr Javid hails as the UK’s ‘world-leading test and trace architecture’.
Sajid Javid provoked roars of laughter when he paid tribute to ‘CCTV guy at the Department of Health’ who caught Matt Hancock (pictured) in the clinch that enabled the return of the Saj
Javid is cautiously optimistic that the vaccine roll-out and the return of mask-wearing will remove the need for any more lockdowns. Pictured: London in lockdown on November 5
‘A really good example of our surveillance capability is the fact that we are the first country to identify the threat of this particular new variant. And in terms of testing, there are hundreds and thousands of tests taking place every day.’
Does he think that Omicron has increased the chances of another dreaded lockdown?
‘No, not yet, not yet,’ he says, before pointing to Boris Johnson’s decision to relax restrictions earlier than other EU countries as key.
‘I think we have got enough data now to say, especially when we look at what’s happening in other countries in Europe, that we absolutely made the right decision in the summer.
‘But I was firmly of the view that of course we need to open up at some point and if you are going to do it, do it into the summer, it’s much less risk. It was about opening up at the safest possible time but accepting the transmission.
‘I think one of the reasons why in the UK things are very stable at this point in time is because of that decision and the success of our booster programme.’
He adds: ‘When I first took up this job, I said we need to learn to live with this virus like we live with flu. We accept that flu comes round every year, sadly people die because of flu and we have given the best help and protection that we can to society, but we don’t stop society to deal with flu.
‘Today we already have flu vaccines that deal with multiple strains and there is no reason to think that you can’t do that with Covid.
‘For the next few years, if the world can get regular vaccines like we get the flu vaccine every winter that deals with multiple strains, then I think we will live completely normal lives again and there is every reason to look forward to that.
‘There is every reason to think that we’ll be able to have normal lives and not have to worry about travel restrictions and things like that. That’s where we want to get to.’
In the delicate equation between public health protection and the health of the economy, Mr Javid places particular weight on the long-term damage caused by the lockdowns.
Another 39,567 Covid cases and 131 deaths were recorded in the UK today. Department of Health officials posted nearly 40,000 daily infections – down 3.36 per cent from 40,941 last Saturday – while the number of people who have died 28 days after testing positive for Covid has also fallen by 12.7 per cent from 150 last week
‘Look at all the other damage that was done because of the lockdowns. The impact on our children, on their education, on the non-Covid health impacts, the surge we’ve seen in mental health referrals – it’s off the charts because of the lockdowns.
‘The rise in people with heart disease going undiagnosed, cancer cases that were undiagnosed – we couldn’t carry on like that.’
Mr Javid is particularly determined to tackle the NHS waiting list, which stands at 5.8 million and is projected to double.
‘No one knows the long-term impact of actions taken around the pandemic in Britain and abroad. We will learn more about this over time but what I do know is, especially when it comes to health, it’s not just about Covid.’
By next spring, no one will be allowed to work for the NHS unless they have been fully vaccinated. Currently, 100,000 members of staff are not. Will there be staff shortages?
‘It’s hard to know,’ he says. As a country we haven’t done anything like this before.
‘If I look at other countries… so France did something similar and in three or four months they went from, I think it was something like 70 per cent vaccinated to 99.8 per cent vaccinated. I hope we’ll have a similar response.’
The British have been more cautious than the Americans in suggesting that the pandemic could have started after a virus leaked from a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Does he still believe the ‘Zoonotic’ theory that it came from a sickly pangolin infecting a human after being bitten by a bat from caves 1,000 miles away?
‘We do need to learn more, there are a lot of questions that still haven’t been answered. That first World Health Organisation investigation into the origins, as they’ve said themselves, is not complete, they want to do more work.
‘We do support WHO, others need to gain access to the information that they need and I do think that it’s right for the longer term for us to learn everything we can about the origins of this one to better protect against the next one when it comes, which one day there will be another challenge, I’ll be honest about that, and the more we learn this time round the better protected we’ll be in the future.’
Away from Covid, the Government has been buffeted by rows over the small boats crisis in the Channel and tensions between Downing Street and the Treasury.
Cases of Omicron have already been picked up in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. It is not yet known whether the variant arrived in the Netherlands yesterday but Dutch authorities are sequencing passengers’ tests
Mr Javid himself left No 11 last year after losing a power struggle with No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings, so are these issues inevitable? ‘No,’ he says quickly.
‘Since I’ve been back in government I have been working incredibly closely with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.
‘We will meet as a team at least once a week and have a lot of stuff to do together and every time I see the two of them together it is a great relationship.’
On the migrant crisis, which he had to deal with as Home Secretary, he says: ‘The responsibility for this ultimately lies with the people smugglers, the gangs that are taking vulnerable people.
They are misleading them and putting them in harm’s way. I think the Home Secretary is doing everything she can, I think she is working incredibly hard on this with her team but it does require others to help us that aren’t in our direct control.
‘The French are top of the list to be doing everything they can to support us in this.’
This is Mr Javid’s sixth Cabinet job. Will it be his last?
‘Health has got to be one of the most important jobs in the country right now. I’ve never felt I’ve been in such a responsible position.’
For which he can thank Mr Hancock’s CCTV implosion – but the two men remain in close contact.
‘Matt worked incredibly hard. He did his very best and when we look back at the pandemic, when the worst of this is all over and we look back, I think people will look back and think Matt Hancock played a really important role and was a great public servant.’