Boris Johnson is to announce £3bn of extra funding for the NHS in England as he tries to reassure an anxious public that the government is prepared in the event of a second wave of Covid-19 cases this winter.
The funds will be available to NHS England immediately, and are expected to be used to keep the emergency Nightingale hospitals open until March, and increase testing capacity to the 500,000 a day he had previously promised.
A No 10 spokesperson said: “The prime minister is clear that now is not the time for complacency, and we must make sure our NHS is battle ready for winter.”
Johnson will set out the next stage of the government’s recovery “roadmap” at a press conference on Friday. He is keen to encourage more people to return to their workplaces in an effort to help city-centre economies recover. He may also relax guidance on what social contacts the public might safely make.
Ministers are concerned that public fear about a renewed rise in coronavirus cases is deterring them from venturing out. Use of public transport has been less than expected since services were increased.
Matt Hancock, the health and social care secretary, had already announced that face coverings in shops would be mandatory from 24 July, citing the need to reassure shoppers. The move came after several days of mixed messaging from ministers on the issue.
Downing Street hopes that sending a decisive signal about NHS preparedness for winter will also help soothe public nerves.
Hancock is planning a significant expansion of flu vaccinations to try to reduce pressure on NHS England from non-coronavirus illnesses. The government is also to start a marketing campaign to highlight the ready availability of coronavirus tests.
Meanwhile, in the hope of encouraging more public transport use, officials are working on a banding system to highlight quieter times to use services, while train operating companies are preparing a “travel safe this summer” campaign.
In a potential blow to Johnson’s hopes of getting more people back into offices, however, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, told MPs on Thursday that he saw “absolutely no reason” for people to stop working from home.
Vallance told the science and technology committee: “I think my view on this, and I think this is a view shared by Sage, is that we’re still at a time when distancing measures are important. And, of the various distancing measures, working from home for many companies remains a perfectly good option because it’s easy to do.”
That appeared to conflict with Johnson’s remarks earlier in the week when he said: “What I want to see is people now who have been working from home for a long time, talking to employers, talking to their place of work, about the steps that have been taken, and looking to come back to work in a safe way.”
Vallance said he and his fellow scientific advisers accepted the need for a big effort ahead of a possible resurgence of the virus in autumn. “It’s fully understood, and it needs to be acted on,” he said. “As an adviser I can’t make that happen. But I think it’s important that it does happen.”
He also told the committee that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had advised the government to impose a lockdown “as soon as possible” on 16 March. Rules enforcing social distancing did not come in until a week later.
Asked about this later in the Commons, Hancock said he had made a statement to MPs on 16 March advising against unnecessary social contact, adding: “That is precisely when the lockdown was started.”