Isabel Hardman

Ministers are compounding the Covid confusion

Ministers are compounding the Covid confusion
(Photo by Andrew Parsons/No. 10 Downing Street)
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After several hours of rage that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak were going to be able to avoid self-isolation — despite being contacted by NHS Test and Trace — the pair have performed a screeching U-turn. They’ve now said they will ignore the pilot that they were a part of and stay at home like everyone else has to. Sunak was first out of the blocks, tweeting:

Minutes later, Johnson followed suit, with a Downing Street spokesman saying: 

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.

This testing pilot is something that Michael Gove already took advantage of after attending a football game in Portugal and being told to self-isolate. He was part of a daily Contact Testing Study. Sunak and Johnson were planning to take advantage of the ‘VIP scheme’ which would have allowed them to carry on working and only self-isolate when not working. They would have had to take daily tests to allow this to happen.

The timing of this couldn’t be worse, given the numbers of people being pinged by the app or contacted by NHS Test and Trace and told they must isolate. Business leaders have been warning that the country could come to a standstill as a result of the sheer numbers of people being forced to stay at home. It underlines the ‘one rule for them’ sense that has been building throughout this later stage of the pandemic.

The U-turn underlines something else, too. Ministers are increasingly tying themselves in knots to justify their own policies. The pilot is now something they have to avoid, using language that suggests it was thrust upon them against their will and that they’d always desperately wanted to self-isolate all along. Tomorrow is ‘freedom day’, but ministers don’t really want people to make use of the freedoms they’re getting, and are begging them to act as though they haven’t been given any new freedoms. It’s almost as if the government doesn’t really know what it should be doing at all.