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Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has come under fire from Labour after he suggested that lockdown curbs can’t continue “just to stop the hospitals being full”.
The Commons Leader told ConservativeHome.com’s “Moggcast” podcast that “the NHS is there to serve the British people, not the British people there to serve the NHS”.
He also suggested that protecting the health service should no longer be the government’s top priority and that patients entering hospital for a few days was “not very important”.
Rees-Mogg said that “infections are not what matters any more”, adding that the number of deaths from Covid should be the key consideration as the UK came out of the pandemic and ministers weighed up the need for personal freedom.
The minister was asked about the prospect of the Indian variant of Covid spreading further in the absence of two doses of vaccines for all adults, and the prospect of hospitals being “clogged up” as they struggled with a backlog of non-Covid cases.
He replied: “Ultimately, the NHS is there to serve the British people, not the British people there to serve the NHS, and therefore we may need to spend more money on hospitals but you can’t run society just to stop the hospitals being full.
“Otherwise you’d never let us get in our cars and drive anywhere or do any of the other things that people want to do. There has to be some proportionality within that. The government doesn’t have the right to take charge of people’s lives purely to prevent them seeing the doctor.”
He went on: “Actually, otherwise we’d never be allowed in our kitchens where a disproportionate number of accidents in the home take place or our bathrooms, so we’d become very hungry and very smelly on that basis.”
Rees-Mogg, who spoke just hours before Boris Johnson confirmed the final removal of Covid restrictions would be delayed from June 21 to July 19, added that with the older population jabbed young people who caught Covid were less of a worry.
“If everybody in the top nine categories has had the double vaccination and has had two weeks afterwards, people below those categories aren’t at a particular risk,” he said.
“Infections are not what matters anymore. Two things that matter: can the NHS cope and the number of deaths. Overwhelmingly important is the number of deaths. People going into hospital for a couple of days and coming out again, it’s not very important. If they’re dying, it’s very important.”
Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “Rees Mogg spends so much time with nanny he thinks the nanny state lurks around every corner. Comparing a pandemic with accidents at home is a ludicrous analogy to make and shows a complete detachment from how this virus has affected people.
“His statement that it’s not the government’s job to protect the NHS is foolish in the extreme and of course contrary to his own government’s policy for the last year. The mask has slipped if he doesn’t think the NHS is worth protecting. As for his comments that people going into hospital with Covid for a few days is ‘not very important’, has he even heard of Long Covid?
“His claim that ‘infections are not what matters any more’ is plainly contrary to the advice of the government’s scientific advisers, because it is rising infections from the Delta variant that has delayed Freedom Day, which is entirely down to the government’s negligence.”
No.10 refused to endorse the cabinet minister’s remarks, preferring to underline that the government’s four tests for each stage of its “roadmap” out of lockdown still applied.
One of those tests is that “infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS”, and a rapid increase in hospital admissions in recent weeks has put it in doubt.
The other key test – that “the assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern” – has not been passed, chief medical officer Chris Whitty confirmed on Monday.
Asked if Rees-Mogg was representing the government’s position by saying society couldn’t be run to avoid hospitals being full, the PM’s official spokesperson replied: “The position we’re using is the four tests.
“And on that basis, we don’t meet those four tests and so that is why we are not proceeding.”
He added that ahead of the July 19 date: “We will decide using the four tests when we come up to that period a week beforehand.”