UK govt in Covid confusion ahead of 'freedom day'
The UK government was thrown into turmoil yesterday 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 in the week ahead after they came into contact with a person infected with COVID-19, 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, and also appeared alongside other ministers in parliament last week. The prime minister nearly died of COVID last year.
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.
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.
Sunak acknowledged the outcry provoked by Downing Street's initial statement, after millions of schoolchildren and workers were forced to stay home under the tracing rules.
"Whilst the test and trace pilot is fairly restrictive, allowing only essential government business, I recognize that even the sense that the rules aren't the same for everyone is wrong," he tweeted.
"To that end I'll be self isolating as normal and not taking part in the pilot."
The development came just as Johnson's government prepares to ditch most pandemic restrictions in England today, despite daily infection rates now topping 50,000 – behind only Indonesia and Brazil.
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour party, said the government was in "chaos" after sending mixed messages about what it expects the public to do from today.
"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."
The government insists that with two-thirds of the adult population now fully vaccinated, the risk can be managed despite rising infections, and today 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 judgement" thanks to school summer holidays starting this week and the onset of hotter weather.
But he conceded that the pandemic's current wave may not peak until September.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour's health spokesman, said the government was being "reckless" with its plans for today, echoing many scientists.
"We are against opening up without any precautions in place," Ashworth said.