Boris Johnson’s ambitions to appear Churchillian on “Freedom Day” on Monday when he could declare victory over the Covid pandemic by lifting all lockdown restrictions have been thrown into disarray.
Instead, the Prime Minister and chancellor Rishi Sunak have been forced to go into self-isolation because they held lengthy meetings with health secretary Sajid Javid who has tested positive for Covid.
Initially, Boris said he would not bother to self-isolate but instead participate in a new daily “test and trace pilot” to make sure he didn’t have the virus — unlike 530,126 people who were last week told to self-isolate for 10 days after being “pinged” by an NHS track and trace app on their mobile phones. This warned them they had been in contact for more than 15 minutes with someone who later tested positive for Covid.
However, Boris’s refusal to self-isolate despite being “pinged” by the NHS app brought howls of outrage from Labour politicians and even some critics from his own side.
Having said he wouldn’t self-isolate at 8am on Sunday morning he swiftly reversed his stance at 10.37am.
Downing Street said Boris, who had Covid last year, would conduct meetings remotely once again from Chequers, his country retreat in Buckinghamshire.
Rishi Sunak File picture
Sunak tweeted: “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.”
A BBC political correspondent, Nick Eardley, summed up sarcastically: “This must be one of the fastest government U-turns ever: 157 minutes after saying the PM and chancellor wouldn’t be isolating, Downing Street decided they would.”
Opposition parties had suggested there was “one rule for them and another for the rest of us”.
Callers to LBC talk radio said Boris’s premiership could eventually be on the line if he was seen to be avoiding rules ordinary members of the public were meant to obey.
Labour leader Keir Starmer was quick to put the boot in by saying the Prime Minister and chancellor had been “busted yet again for thinking the rules that we are all following don’t apply to them. The public have done so much to stick to the rules. 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. The way the Prime Minister conducts himself creates chaos, makes for bad government and has deadly consequences for the British public”.
The last vestiges of restrictions are due to be swept away on Monday, including the reopening of venues such as nightclubs and theatres and the end of limits on the number of people meeting indoors. People are “advised” to wear masks in supermarkets and on public transport but the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has announced that face coverings will remain compulsory on buses and the Underground.
As things stand, there is no prospect of UK-India travel restrictions being relaxed in the foreseeable future.
The bigger problem for Boris is that he has committed himself to not imposing another lockdown, which would be the fourth since the first one in March last year. The Conservative Party has an extremist wing, which will go for his jugular if he is forced by events to bring in another lockdown though the number of Covid cases is rising at an alarming rate.
On Saturday, 54,674 new people had a confirmed positive test result and there were 41 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
The government is relying on the fact that the UK’s vaccination programme has brought down the number of deaths. But NHS hospitals could be overwhelmed by winter and perhaps even autumn if the number of daily infections continues to rise as predicted by scientists.
Prof Neil Ferguson, a key government scientific adviser, has warned that this wave of the virus could take until mid-August to mid-September to peak. He said it would be a success if daily cases peaked at just over 100,000 with hospital admissions at 1,000 a day, adding that there could be another 500,000 cases of “long Covid”.