Johnson sets out Covid plan after last-minute Cabinet hitch

The plan, which had been in the pipeline for weeks, hit a last-minute snag just hours before it was due to be announced.

21 February 2022

Boris Johnson’s plan to rip up England’s remaining coronavirus restrictions hit a last-minute snag with a Cabinet bust-up over key details.

The Prime Minister’s top team was expected to sign off the living with Covid strategy on Monday morning.

But in chaotic scenes, the Cabinet meeting was postponed – after some of the ministers due to attend it had already arrived in No 10.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke had already arrived in No 10 before the postponement.

The delay was understood to centre on Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s demands over the maintenance of a testing regime and questions over how elements would be funded.

Cabinet Meeting
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was one of the ministers who arrived for a Cabinet meeting which was postponed at the last minute (Yui Mok/PA)

Under the plan, universal free testing in England will continue until April and Covid-19 surveillance programmes will also continue, but there is no extra money for Mr Javid’s department.

The strategy was eventually signed off at a 45-minute meeting on Monday afternoon.

Mr Javid was understood to be “happy” with the situation, having had his concerns about issues including the Office for National Statistics surveillance study and the retention of genomic sequencing capacity addressed.

But Downing Street confirmed there was no extra cash, with funding coming from existing budgets.

Unemployment figures
Chancellor Rishi Sunak (Justin Tallis/PA)

Allies of Chancellor Rishi Sunak – who has stressed the need to control the public finances – insisted the row was “no one’s fault” but it was “just Cabinet-level discussions as you’d expect”.

Mr Johnson hopes the plan, which from Thursday will end the legal requirement for people with Covid-19 to self-isolate, will shore up support from Tory backbenchers who have been critical of coronavirus restrictions.

But the public signs of Cabinet wrangling could be an indication that his authority has been damaged while he faces an ongoing row over the partygate scandal.

Sajid Javid visits Porton Down – Salisbury
Health Secretary Sajid Javid was said to be happy with the final package (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The plan had been in the pipeline for weeks and Mr Johnson had signalled his intention to end the legal requirement to self-isolate before the Commons recess, so the last-minute wrangling came as a surprise to many in Westminster.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer seized on the Cabinet row to mock the Prime Minister in the Commons: “This morning he couldn’t even persuade his own Health Secretary to agree the plan. So what confidence can the public have that this is the right approach?”

A No 10 spokesman said: “Cabinet gave unanimous backing to the living with Covid strategy.”

Asked whether all members of the Cabinet had confidence in the plan, Mr Johnson told MPs:  “Yes, of course they do and this plan is completely scientifically attested and it’s the right thing to do.”

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