Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have been accused of undermining the UK’s battle against Covid-19 by trying to dodge the test-and-trace rules which have seen hundreds of thousands of workers, parents and children self-isolate to try to stop the spread of the virus.
The prime minister and chancellor were forced into a humiliating U-turn amid waves of fury over their attempt to avoid a 10-day quarantine by joining an experimental daily testing scheme.
Johnson and Sunak were “pinged” by NHS Test and Trace as contacts of Covid-positive health secretary Sajid Javid, but Downing Street initially declared they would carry on working as normal through the “get out of jail free” scheme previously used by Michael Gove.
The decision - denounced as “Barnard Castle on steroids” by Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey in reference to Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-busting trip to Durham - was denounced far beyond Westminster, with one business leader accusing the government of treating Britons “like mugs” and another saying it was a case of “do as I say, not as I do”.
Following warnings that they risked undermining public willingness to comply with “pingdemic” instructions to isolate, the PM and chancellor caved in to pressure and announced that they would observe quarantine after all - just two hours and 38 minutes after saying they would not.
The second statement said that Mr Johnson had been contacted by NHS Test and Trace while at Chequers and would remain at his Buckinghamshire country residence, contradicting the earlier suggestion that he would “continue working at Downing Street” while taking part in the daily testing regime.
The U-turn came just minutes after housing secretary Robert Jenrick completed a round of broadcast interviews in which he defended his cabinet colleagues’ use of the pilot scheme, which allows participants to avoid self-isolation by having daily lateral flow tests.
Mr Johnson’s retreat over the testing pilot means that he will be forced to conduct the final session of prime minister’s questions before the summer recess, on Wednesday, via video link - just days after telling MPs it was safe to return to Westminster.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the government was “in chaos” over its coronavirus strategy, just a day ahead of the removal of most remaining restrictions in England on Monday.
The so-called “Freedom Day” comes with daily infection rates above 50,000, with government scientific adviser Neil Ferguson warning they would “almost inevitably” reach a record 100,000 and could top 200,000.
“Success” under the government’s no-restrictions regime would see the current Delta variant wave peak at little over 1,000 hospitalisations and 100,000 positive tests a day and then slowly decline, said Prof Ferguson, as Mr Jenrick warned the wave could stretch into September.
Sir Keir said Johnson and Sunak had been “busted” in an attempt to dodge the rules, adding: “At a time when we need to maintain confidence in self isolation, parents, workers and businesses will be wondering what on earth is going on in Downing Street.
“Yet again the Conservatives fixed the rules to benefit themselves, and only backtracked when they were found out. They robbed the bank, got caught and have now offered to give the money back.”
Official guidance for the daily testing scheme states that participants are chosen at random as part of a trial of new ways of dealing with contact-tracing, but Mr Jenrick said that around 20 public bodies - including the Cabinet Office and 10 Downing Street - had been signed up to take part.
Ms Rayner said that the decision to withdraw made clear that ministers and officials were participating for their own convenience and not as part of a scientific exercise as claimed.
“So it isn’t a pilot scheme?” asked the Labour deputy leader. “It’s just something they made up because they didn’t want to isolate like the plebs?
“If people now delete the app and don’t self-isolate when pinged then every additional Covid case will be the direct responsibility of the PM and chancellor.”
Sir Ed Davey said: “I’m glad Johnson U-turned, right decision.
“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.”
And Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley said: “The damage is already done. This government has no principles and no judgement. And every mistake it makes destroys even more lives.”
Fury at the PM’s initial attempt to get round the rules extended far beyond Westminster, with businesses complaining that politicians were trying to dodge the consequences of the “pingdemic” they have unleashed on workers.
Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland supermarkets, tweeted: “Shame the hundreds of Iceland staff who’ve been pinged can’t avoid self-isolation. “
The managing director of CKB Recruitment, Kieran Boyle, said: “Yet again the ruling class are treating us all like mugs. They have decimated so many small businesses already, and stuck two fingers up at limited company directors, and this just adds even more fuel to the fire. “
The founder of Derby-based Loates HR Consultancy, Sarah Loates, said: “The sheer chutzpah of this government is breathtaking.
“As businesses, parents and others struggle on with their self-isolation sacrifice, once again it’s a case of do as I say, not as I do.”
And Helen Williams, owner of Middlewich-based Willow Bridal Boutique, said: “If we have to self-isolate, then so should those who apparently represent us.
“As a small, independent close-contact business, I’m paranoid about getting pinged. Having just one of my customers test positive will close my entire business for two weeks with no financial support.”
An initial statement released by Downing Street at 8am confirmed that Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak had been contacted by NHS Test and Trace overnight. The contact came after a PCR test confirmed a positive Covid diagnosis for Mr Javid, who became “groggy” on Friday evening shortly after a meeting with the PM.
Under the pilot scheme, the pair were able to continue working so long as they recorded negative results on daily tests conducted at an asymptomatic testing site in Downing Street, but would have to self-isolate outside work.
“They will be participating in the daily contact testing pilot to allow them to continue to work from Downing Street,” said the statement. “They will be conducting only essential government business during this period.”
At 10.38am, this was followed by a hastily-revised statement from a Downing Street spokesperson: “The prime minister has been contacted by NHS Test and Trace to say he is a contact of someone with Covid.
“He was at Chequers when contacted by Test and Trace and will remain there to isolate. He will not be taking part in the testing pilot.
“He will continue to conduct meetings with ministers remotely. The chancellor has also been contacted and will also isolate as required and will not be taking part in the pilot.”
The public learnt of Mr Sunak’s backtrack slightly ahead of the PM’s, as the chancellor tweeted his decision while Downing Street briefed media behind the scenes.
“Whilst the test and trace pilot is fairly restrictive, allowing only essential government business, I recognise that even the sense that the rules aren’t the same for everyone is wrong,” said the chancellor.
“To that end I’ll be self isolating as normal and not taking part in the pilot.”
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