As the row over Matt Hancock’s relationship with his married adviser Gina Coladangelo continues to dominate the news, attention in Westminster is turning to what his Cabinet successor will do. Will Sajid Javid’s appointment as Health Secretary lead to a change in the government’s approach to Covid? That’s the question Tory MPs are asking as Javid prepares to make his Commons debut today after accepting the role.
On Sunday, Javid said his most immediate priority would be to return life to normal ‘as quickly as possible’. Of course, wanting a pandemic to end sooner rather than later isn’t a particularly controversial position, but given that Hancock earned a reputation as the chief Cabinet dove on the issue, it already feels as though a shift in tone is underway.
After quitting as Chancellor early last year, Javid made several Covid interventions from the backbenches. His statements point to a more hawkish attitude than Hancock ever had. Last spring he said in an interview with Sky News that the government ought to ‘run the economy hot’ with fewer restrictions. His comments were focused on economic growth – but he has also spoken about the other costs of lockdown. Issues such as rising domestic abuse during the lockdowns, as well as the mental toll lockdown has taken on individuals, will be familiar to him after his time as Home Secretary.
Given that Boris Johnson is very optimistic about July 19 as the new ‘freedom day’ and ministers are keener than ever he sticks to the date, Covid Cabinet debates are not as lively as they were in the early stages of the pandemic. But they haven’t gone away and having Javid as Health Secretary has the potential to tip the balance of the inner Cabinet – also known as ‘the quad’ of Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and now Javid – in favour of a less cautious approach.
Today Javid is expected to announce that the two-week review to see if the lockdown easing can be brought forward to July 5 will not recommend an early lifting of restrictions. Looking ahead there also remains the question of how many restrictions will actually be lifted on July 19. Does working from home guidance go? What will the self-isolation rule be? And will face masks be mandatory on public transport? Given that Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty is already letting it be known privately how concerned he is about the winter and the NHS, there’s already some talk among ministers of restrictions returning later this year.
With Javid’s job now to focus on health, his previous talk of ‘running the economy hot’ will take a backseat. His in-tray includes dealing with the NHS backlog from Covid, the booster shot programme, upcoming health reforms and social care. Yet as he approaches these tasks, there is reason to believe his view on the handling of Covid will yield different results than Hancock’s.
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