As England braced for the removal of remaining lockdown restrictions on Monday, Boris Johnson was accused of undermining his own pleas for caution from the public by attempting to dodge an instruction to self-isolate.
The prime minister and chancellor Rishi Sunak were forced into a humiliating U-turn after a wave of fury greeted their announcement that they would sidestep 10 days’ quarantine as contacts of Covid-positive Sajid Javid by joining a pilot scheme trialling daily testing as an alternative to isolation.
Among those voicing anger were small businesses who said the government was treating them “like mugs” in a case of “do as I say, not as I do”.
The climbdown came as business leaders issued an appeal for the government to exempt double-jabbed adults from self-isolation, while unions warned that the freedom day promised for 19 July risked turning into “chaos day” as thousands of workers were “pinged” with instructions to stay home.
After a week in which more than 500,000 people were told to isolate, forcing the closure of businesses, cancellation of trains and the suspension of a London Underground line, CBI president Lord Bilimoria called for the exemption to be brought forward immediately from the planned date of 16 August, warning: “Against the backdrop of crippling staff shortages, speed is of the essence.”
Former PM Tony Blair said daily testing to avoid quarantine should be offered to all vaccinated people, as part of a plan also including jabs for teenagers, mandatory Covid passports for major events and masks in crowded public spaces, which he said would allow the UK to live with a disease which he predicted would continue causing disruption for several years.
And government scientific adviser Neil Ferguson said daily infection rates would “almost inevitably” reach 100,000 within weeks and could top 200,000, with the peak followed by a slow decline in numbers stretching into the autumn. Around half a million people can be expected to contract the debilitating long Covid condition during this wave, he said.
Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick was sent out onto the airwaves to defend the decision for the PM and chancellor to join the daily testing scheme, previously used by Michael Gove to dodge quarantine. Although official guidance states that participants are chosen randomly, he said around 20 public bodies – including the Cabinet Office and 10 Downing Street – were also signed up.
But within minutes of him completing a round of awkward interviews – and just two hours and 38 minutes after the initial announcement – Downing Street issued a statement to say that Johnson and Sunak would after all self-isolate until 26 July.
Johnson was accused of adding insult to injury with a remarkable video message in which he showed no contrition for his attempt to duck quarantine, saying only that he had “looked briefly” at the option and adding that it was vital for everybody to “stick to the same rules”.
The message was described as “beyond parody” by one SNP MP, while Labour frontbencher Bridget Phillipson asked: “Does he take us all for fools?”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Johnson and Sunak had been “busted” in an attempt to escape the consequences of the rules they had imposed on others.
“Yet again the Conservatives fixed the rules to benefit themselves, and only backtracked when they were found out,” he said. “They robbed the bank, got caught and have now offered to give the money back.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey described the initial decision as “Barnard Castle on steroids”, in reference to Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-breaching trip to Durham.
“I’m glad Johnson U-turned, right decision,” said Davey.
“But the fact he thought he could get away with it in the first place shows the utter contempt he has for the British people.”
As the long-awaited date for completion of Mr Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown arrived, ministers were steering clear of the previous “freedom day” messaging linked to the end of mandatory masks and social-distancing, reopening of nightclubs and removal of restrictions on attendance at mass events in England.
A mooted victory speech by the PM at a venue linked with wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill was reportedly dumped even before Mr Johnson was forced into seclusion at Chequers, as unease grew about the fast-rising numbers of infections.
And in an eve-of-relaxations message, Mr Johnson said that vaccinations were proving successful in weakening the link between infection and serious illness or death, but added: “Please, please, please be cautious. Go forward tomorrow into the next step with all the right prudence and respect for other people and the risks that the disease continues to present.
“And, above all, please, please, please when you’re asked to get that second jab, please come forward and do it.”
Johnson will be forced to conduct the final session of prime minister’s questions before summer recess on Wednesday by video link, just days after telling MPs it was safe to return to the Commons. And he will miss a crucial week in which the government is set to unveil its new approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol and may finalise proposals for social care reform.
Mr Jenrick indicated that new advice on jabs for teenagers was expected on Monday from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), with only those approaching their 18th birthday and those vulnerable because of medical conditions – or living with someone vulnerable – likely to be invited to be inoculated.
With daily infection rates at 48,161 on Sunday, after topping 50,000 several times last week, scientists warned that Mr Johnson was taking a “completely reckless and unethical” gamble in pushing ahead with the removal of restrictions.
Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani of Queen Mary University London – a leading light behind the Lancet letter backed by 1,200 medics and scientists denouncing the move – told The Independent: “I think it is likely that this will lead to another lockdown.
“The root cause of what is happening right now is unmitigated pandemic spread, which the government seems really reluctant to control. Rather, what it seems to be doing is taking away the very few protections we have in the hope of diminishing the impact on the economy. I think that is badly backfiring already.”
The Rail, Maritime and Transport union said Saturday’s “pingdemic” closure of London Underground’s Metropolitan Line showed that transport services were “on a knife edge”.
General secretary Mick Lynch said: “Many rail, bus and Tube services are already seriously understaffed which leaves them dangerously exposed.
“The government’s botched handling of this latest phase of the pandemic, and the rank hypocrisy of the prime minister and his chancellor who don’t think the isolation rules apply to them, means that their freedom day could very easily collapse into chaos day.”
And TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The government cannot watch from the sidelines as Covid runs riot.
“Ministers must urgently make wearing a mask a legal requirement on public transport and in shops, and they must toughen their vague and inadequate back-to-work guidance so workers have confidence their workplaces are safe.”
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