Boris Johnson has told MPs that possible herd immunity is “not the consideration” behind holding back changes to COVID self-isolation rules until 16 August.
The prime minister is facing a backlash after he set out his intention to press ahead with the final lifting of coronavirus restrictions in England on 19 July – but the government won’t ease quarantine rules for double-jabbed adults, or under-18s, until 28 days later.
It has led to claims that millions of people in England could be forced to undergo 10-day quarantine periods over the next few weeks – if they are a contact of an infected person – amid soaring COVID rates.
Following an admission by Health Secretary Sajid Javid that there could be 100,000 coronavirus cases this summer, businesses have warned of the economic harm of large numbers of workers having to quarantine.
The Evening Standard on Wednesday reported that Department of Health officials expect a peak of COVID infections to come in mid-August, after which – the newspaper said – they think cases will begin to fall.
One source told the newspaper that COVID “will run through the unvaccinated and the single-dosed, but because such vast numbers of people now have antibodies and can resist it, it will then start falling off because it will run out of people to infect”.
The Daily Mail also reported that Department of Health officials are now referring to a strategy of “hybrid immunity” involving the inoculation of older, more vulnerable people and vaccinations combined with natural immunity through infection in younger age groups.
However, appearing before the House of Commons’ powerful Liaison Committee on Wednesday, Mr Johnson denied that the prospect of “herd immunity” was part of the calculation in setting the 16 August date.
“That’s not the consideration,” he told the committee, which is made up of the chairs of all the Commons’ select committees.
“It’s the time by which we feel that there will have been much more progress made in vaccination – even more than 19 July.
“All these decisions are a balance of risk and by 16 August we will have got many more jabs into people’s arms.”
The prime minister told MPs he “hadn’t seen any data” on how many people might have to self-isolate as contacts of an infected person during the 28 days between 19 July and 16 August.
Mr Johnson said ministers were “trying to strike the right balance”, adding: “The two sides of it are that you could simply say ‘we’re going to dispense all together with self-isolation and move straight to a testing regime and not bother with asking people to do that anymore’.
“The difficulty with that is you would be effectively allowing many more people to be vectors of disease than by continuing with our plans.”
The prime minister said that the test, trace and isolate system had “made a massive difference” during the pandemic.
He added that, while the government was “moving to testing” in the next stage of combatting the virus, for now ministers “want to retain the tool of asking people to protect others from the disease”.
“It’s been effective, it’s an important thing to do and I think we should stick with it,” the prime minister said.
On Monday, when the prime minister set out how almost all remaining COVID rules will be lifted on 19 July, Downing Street denied that herd immunity among the unvaccinated was a government aim.
“Herd immunity is not in any way a government goal,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.
“You know our approach, which is to vaccinate the adult population. We are still waiting on advice from the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) as regards children.”
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