Boris Johnson has plunged his Covid strategy into fresh bedlam after he decided to dodge self-isolation – then U-turned two hours and 38 minutes later.
The PM and Chancellor Rishi Sunak initially said they’d be part of a daily testing pilot, despite being ‘pinged’ following a meeting with Covid-ridden Health Secretary Sajid Javid in Downing Street.
It would have meant they avoided having to be in self-isolation on so-called ‘Freedom Day’ tomorrow.
Downing Street later confirmed the PM and Chancellor WILL self-isolate after all.
That means Mr Johnson will be holed up at his country retreat Chequers for the next week while laws on masks, social distancing and the ‘rule of six’ indoors are all axed.
Mr Sunak admitted: “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. To that end I’ll be self isolating as normal and not taking part in the pilot.”
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The bizarre about-face happened after Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed via PCR test overnight that he has Covid-19.
After the result was confirmed, contacts Mr Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak were contacted by NHS Test and Trace, rather than ‘pinged’ by the Covid-19 app.
Normally, this official Test and Trace call would impose a legal duty to self-isolate for up to 10 days – with £1,000 fines for those who breach the law.
But the PM and Chancellor instead agreed to take part in a coveted “daily contact testing pilot” available to a precious few people in industry and government.
Under the scheme, they would have taken daily tests and only self-isolate from their work if they come back positive.
Yet the move prompted widespread anger, as daily contact testing for the wider public is still months away from any possible introduction.
The daily contact testing pilot currently only covers 20 organisations – one of which is No10. Others include Network Rail, TFL, Heathrow and Border Force.
Announcing the Prime Minister’s U-turn at 10.38am, a No10 spokesman said: “He will not be taking part in the testing pilot. He will continue to conduct meetings with ministers remotely.”
No10’s screeching U-turn on isolation chaos
8.00am, Sunday 18 July: “The Prime Minister and Chancellor have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace as contacts of someone who has tested positive for Covid. They will be participating in the daily contact testing pilot to allow them to continue to work from Downing Street. They will be conducting only essential government business during this period.”
10.38am, Sunday 18 July: “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.”
Mystery still surrounds the exact eligibility criteria for the scheme, which No10 officials claimed is assessed on a case-by-case basis.
When details of the pilot were published in April, the government said participants would be “randomly” placed into one of two groups – those who can avoid isolation, and a control group who still have to isolate.
Yet the PM and Chancellor both managed to get into the isolation avoidance group. Reports suggest they were on a different version of the scheme without a control group.
People who take part in the pilot must still self-isolate when not at work.
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The pair tried to avoid isolation despite more than 500,000 Brits a week being ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid app – and more by Test and Trace.
Before the U-turn, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick insisted ordinary Brits who have contact with a positive case must continue to isolate to “tackle the virus right now”.
He admitted “I don’t know” who decided Downing Street would be on the pilot list.
He told Sky News: “I entirely appreciate your point that this isn’t available yet to wider members of the public and I appreciate the frustration they might feel listening to this.
“They, like me or other members of the public who are pinged, will have to self-isolate in the usual way and that’s a really important part of our plan to keep Covid under control.”
Asked if the PM and Chancellor had meant Freedom Day for themselves, not the millions who will be ‘pinged’, Mr Jenrick insisted: “They can conduct important government business but they won’t be able to go out socialising or meet other friends and family.
“They’ll have to limit their contact with other people as much as they possibly can.”
But Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said before the U-turn: “The Prime Minister is making a mockery of the sacrifices millions of people have made. His decision to duck self isolation is callous and irresponsible.
“Through refusing to self isolate the Prime Minister is effectively destroying the whole test and trace system.
“This is Barnard Castle on steroids. Johnson mustn’t do a Cummings.”
Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth also blasted the “one rule for them” policy that will “stick in people’s throats” – and warned it could undermine people’s trust in the rules.
He said there would be parents and workers “across the country” who had been pinged, telling Sky News: “To hear there is a special, exclusive rule for Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, they will be saying to themselves ‘this looks like one rule for them and something else for the rest of us’.
“No one understands how you can get access to this special treatment, this special VIP lane where you don’t have to isolate yourself.
“If it’s a pilot, why can’t employers apply for workforce to be members? Why can’t schools apply to be part of this pilot test?
“I really do think a lot of people are going to be looking at this and thinking, ‘what on earth is going on?’.
“And of course this is at a time when we need to maintain confidence in the isolation policies because isolation… is one of the key ways in which we break transmission, and infections are rising at the moment.”
Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street)
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner tweeted before the U-turn: “A VIP lane for PPE contracts, a VIP lane for testing contracts and now a VIP lane for getting pinged but not having to isolate.
“A government of fraudsters and grifters conning the public.”
A No10 spokesman had said at 8am: “The Prime Minister and Chancellor have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace as contacts of someone who has tested positive for Covid.
“They will be participating in the daily contact testing pilot to allow them to continue to work from Downing Street.
“They will be conducting only essential government business during this period.”
Last week it emerged a number of ministers and civil servants had access to the scheme, despite it still being in the pilot stage.
Cabinet minister Michel Gove used the scheme back in May after enjoying the Champions League final in Porto.
Mr Javid confirmed at 10pm on Saturday night that a gold standard PCR test had come back positive for Covid-19.
He said he was feeling “a bit groggy” on Friday night, hours after a lengthy meeting with the PM in Downing Street, and started isolating yesterday after a lateral flow test came back positive.
More than half a million people were ordered to isolate in England and Wales in a week after being ‘pinged’ by the Covid-19 app.
Latest data shows 530,126 alerts – 520,194 in England and 9,932 in Wales – were sent in the seven days to July 7.
This was a 46% rise compared to the previous week – sparking fears of chaos in the summer economy with restaurants, pubs and meat-packing factories warning they could have to shut or curtail their business.
Yet a No10 spokesman played down any hopes the app could be tweaked to become less sensitive in the coming days.
From July 19 to August 15, if people in England test positive, have symptoms, or are a contact of a positive case they must self-isolate for 10 days.
If they are told to isolate by NHS Test and Trace, it is a legal requirement.
If they are ‘pinged’ and told to isolate by the NHS Covid-19 app, it is not a legal requirement but it is still recommended.
This will change on August 16. From that date, people who had their second dose at least 14 days earlier will no longer have to self-isolate if they’re a contact of a positive case.
However, those who test positive or have Covid symptoms will still need to isolate even after August 16.