The UK government was thrown into turmoil by its own rules on COVID self-isolation just as it controversially prepares to ditch pandemic curbs in England.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and finance minister Rishi Sunak will be working remotely the week ahead after they came into contact with a person infected with Covid, Downing Street said.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed on Saturday he had tested positive for Covid-19 and was now self-isolating for 10 days. He had a “lengthy” meeting with Johnson on Friday, according to the Sunday Times. The prime minister nearly died of Covid last year.
Mr. Javid also appeared alongside ministers in parliament last week, and one government source told The Telegraph newspaper: “I don’t see how half the cabinet doesn’t end up in isolation by the end of the week.”
Initially, a Downing Street spokesperson said both Johnson and Sunak were taking part in a government pilot that enables them to continue working from their offices while self-isolating outside of work. A file photo of Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak took on 13 October 2020.
Yet, in an update after a storm of anger over the announcement, the spokesperson reversed position and said neither official was participating in the pilot but would conduct business remotely.
Johnson will remain at the prime minister’s country retreat at Chequers northwest of London, where he was staying when contacted by Covid tracing officials from the National Health Service (NHS).
The carve-out for the particular pilot had provoked uproar among social media users, and opposition politicians after millions of schoolchildren and workers were forced to stay home under the tracing rules.
“Sorry for the unparliamentary language, but this just takes the pi**,” Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said on Twitter. “This govt treats the public with contempt and thinks they are above the law and that the rules don’t apply to them,” she wrote.
The development came just as Johnson’s government prepares to ditch most pandemic restrictions in England on Monday, despite daily infection rates now topping 50,000 — behind only Indonesia and Brazil.
The government insists that with two-thirds of the adult population now fully vaccinated, the risk can be managed, and Monday has been dubbed “freedom day” by many UK media.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told BBC television it was still the “logical moment” to replace legal diktats with “personal judgment”, thanks to school summer holidays starting this week and the onset of hotter weather.
But on Sky News, he conceded that the pandemic’s current wave may not peak until September and said: “There are going to be some quite challenging weeks ahead.”
The Labour party’s health spokesman, Jonathan Ashworth, said the government was being “reckless” with its plans for Monday, echoing many scientists who say the reopening endangers global health.
“We are against opening up without any precautions in place,” Ashworth told the BBC, attacking, in particular, the government’s plan to drop a mandate for wearing masks.
Under the plan for England, all restrictions on social mixing and an order to work from home will be lifted. Nightclubs can reopen, and sports stadia, cinemas, and theatres can operate at total capacity.