Sajid Javid has been urged by health bosses to be the “voice of caution” in the Cabinet, as a scientist advising the Government warned it would be a “definite mistake” to bring forward the lifting of restrictions.
Mr Javid, who became Health Secretary after Matt Hancock’s resignation over the weekend, is later expected to make his first Commons statement since rejoining the Cabinet.
On Sunday, he said his “most immediate priority” would be “to see that we can return to normal as soon and as quickly as possible”.
Mr Javid is expected to return to the Commons despatch box for the first time since he quit as chancellor in February last year, after being told he must sack all his advisers if he wanted to keep his job.
Monday marks a week before July 5, the midway point of extended measures and the earliest point at which remaining restrictions could be lifted, and while Mr Javid is not expected to bring lockdown to a close any earlier than July 19, he is reported to be confident the measures will not extend past that date.
He is considered to be more in the “hawks” camp of Cabinet opinion over the approach to coronavirus, alongside Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
In an interview with Sky News in May last year, he voiced his concerns over long lockdowns and how they would impact the economy.
In contrast, Mr Hancock was considered a “dove” who pressed for more stringent restrictions.
Mr Hancock was unpopular with some Tory MPs who believed he was an obstacle to the easing of restrictions.
But health officials want Mr Javid to be a “voice of caution” in the Cabinet over the pressures the pandemic is heaping on the NHS.
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Covid is the most pressing issue, the number of cases in hospital are rising.
“Covid is an issue and he needs to be a voice of caution in the Cabinet in terms of the potential pressures in the health service.”
Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the Nervtag (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) from Imperial College London, said it would be a “definite mistake” to bring the easing of restrictions forward from July 19.
He told Sky News: “He may have different attitudes, but I do hope that he will follow his predecessor and take a very cautious approach, because we must get the vaccination rates up before we ease the restrictions.”
Asked if the July 19 date could be brought forward, Prof Openshaw said: “I think it would be a mistake. We are very fortunate to have had this four-week delay which allows vaccination rates to get really high and for us to gather a lot more data about just how the Delta agent is spreading.
“And I think bringing the date forward would be a definite mistake.
“I do hope that that date, which of course was said to be the earliest date, is a provisional date and it could even be delayed. I do hope we will we will not be accelerating that easement.”
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of the NHS Providers organisation, said the new Health Secretary needs to immediately address the fresh surge of Covid-19, a “huge spike” in demand for emergency services and a backlog of people waiting for NHS treatment.
She told BBC Breakfast: “We do have this new surge of Covid so tackling that is going to be absolutely critical and all focuses on that alongside thinking about how we tackle the huge backlog of care that has arisen – we know that waiting lists are at their highest level, over 5.1 million, and those who’ve waited for more than a year is also an incredibly high level.
“Also what we’ve seen recently is a huge spike in demand for both emergency care and mental health care.”
She said the NHS is facing a “really tough winter”, adding: “We need to be able to clear the decks for that and focus on that.”