Johnson and Sunak to self-isolate after backlash forces U-turn

PM urges public to ‘please, please, be cautious’ as restrictions begin to lift in England

UK prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak. Photograph: PA

UK prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak. Photograph: PA

 

UK prime minister Boris Johnson and finance minister Rishi Sunak will both self-isolate in line with national guidance, abandoning heavily criticised plans to take part in a pilot scheme that would have allowed them to continue working.

The shift comes a day after health minister Sajid Javid said he had tested positive for Covid-19 and at a time when the government’s coronavirus response is under intense scrutiny.

Almost all remaining restrictions in England will be lifted on Monday despite a surge in infections as ministers put their faith in the advanced vaccine programme.

Cases are rising by more than 50,000 a day and hundreds of thousands of Britons are being asked to self-isolate for 10 days, causing havoc for employers and parents, prompting train cancellations and forcing some businesses to close their doors.

Mr Johnson used a video message to plead with the public to take a cautious approach to the change of rules.

“Please, please, please, be cautious,” he said.

“Go forward tomorrow into the next step with all the right prudence and respect for other people, for 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.”

The government announced on Sunday morning that Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak had been exposed to a person with Covid-19 and would take part in a trial scheme that allowed them to keep working instead of self-isolating.

But less than three hours later that decision had been reversed after a flurry of criticism from voters, political opponents and business owners.

“He will not be taking part in the testing pilot,” a spokesman said. “He will continue to conduct meetings with ministers remotely.”

Mr Johnson will isolate at Chequers, his country residence.

Opposition politicians had said it was hypocritical for Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak to exempt themselves from some of the rules.

“Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have been busted yet again for thinking the rules that we are all following don’t apply to them,” said Labour Party leader Keir Starmer.

“The way the prime minister conducts himself creates chaos, makes for bad government and has deadly consequences for the British public.”

Public mistrust

Mr Sunak acknowledged the backlash over their initial decision.

“I recognise that even the sense that the rules aren’t the same for everyone is wrong,” he wrote on Twitter.

The government’s handling of the pandemic has been dogged with episodes that have damaged public trust – most recently when then health minister Matt Hancock was pictured kissing an adviser in breach of social-distancing regulations.

He later resigned.

Housing minister Robert Jenrick confirmed that the government would go ahead with its “freedom day” plan on Monday, removing the requirement to wear face masks, lifting limits on social gatherings and allowing high-risk businesses to reopen.

Ministers argue that the vaccination programme, under which 87.8 per cent of the adult population have had one vaccine shot and 67.8 per cent have had two, has largely broken the link between cases and mortality.

“The last time we had cases at the level we do today, the number of people dying from the virus was 30 times the number it is today,” Mr Jenrick told the BBC.