The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, and finance minister Rishi Sunak will both self-isolate in line with national guidance, abandoning heavily criticized plans to take part in a pilot scheme that would have allowed them to continue working. The U-turn 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 program. 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. The government announced at 0700 GMT that Johnson and 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. "We did look briefly at the idea of us taking part in the pilot scheme... but I think it's far more important that everybody sticks to the same rules," Johnson said in a video message from his country residence, where he will isolate until July 26. The Telegraph reported late on Sunday that ministers were urging Johnson to ditch the requirement for fully-vaccinated people to self-isolate entirely.
Opposition politicians had said it was hypocritical for Johnson and Sunak to have tried 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.
Sunak also acknowledged the backlash over their initial decision. "I recognize that even the sense that the rules aren’t the same for everyone is wrong," he said 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. Johnson used his 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."
Ministers argue that the vaccination program, under which 87.8% of the adult population has had one vaccine dose and 67.8% have been double vaccinated, 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," Jenrick told the BBC.