Johnson U-Turns, Says He’ll Isolate After U.K. Covid Contact

Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to self isolate after being exposed to Covid-19, changing course after a decision to skirt the measure generated a backlash a day before his government is due to lift remaining virus curbs in England.

Early Sunday, Johnson’s office said in a statement that he and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak wouldn’t isolate after being contacted by U.K.’s test and trace program designed to limit the spread of the virus, even after daily cases reached a six-month high on Saturday.

Instead, they were to take part in a pilot program that’s open to some ministers and 20 organizations across the U.K. that allowed for individuals continuing working, while self-isolating when not at work.

That prompted a furious backlash from the Labour Party and members of the public. Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick was forced to defend the decision on Sunday’s political TV shows.

Within three hours Johnson’s office announced the decision had been reversed. Later, Johnson released a video on Twitter saying he had only “briefly” considered entering the testing program.

“We did look briefly into the idea of us taking part in the pilot scheme which allows people to test daily, but I think it’s far more important that everybody sticks to the same rules,” Johnson said in the video from his country retreat, Chequers. “That’s why I’m going to be self-isolating until the 26th of July.”

Sunak said on Twitter that he recognized “that even the sense that the rules aren’t the same for everyone is wrong.”

The move comes a day before Johnson’s government lifts coronavirus restrictions for England -- changes that don’t, for now, include amending provisions on isolating when exposed to a positive case.

The Mail on Sunday newspaper reported that Johnson had intended to make a speech to mark the end of restrictions on Monday at an unnamed venue used by World War II leader Winston Churchill, but that the plan had been abandoned because of soaring virus case rates.

The spread of the delta variant has pushed the U.K. infection rates toward records for the entire pandemic. Hospitalizations are at the highest since late March, but have been rising at a slower rate.

The success of the country’s vaccine drive, especially among older and more vulnerable citizens, has also limited fatalities from the latest wave. Some 41 deaths were reported Saturday, far below more than 1,800 recorded in a single day at the pandemic’s peak in January.

The backlash to Johnson’s initial decision not to self-isolate came after more than half a million people were “pinged” by the National Health Service last week and told to self-isolate, creating acute worker shortages across industries ranging from retail stories to car factories.

The opposition Labour Party’s health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News ahead of Johnson’s U-turn that the public would view the decision as “one rule for them and something else for the rest of us.”

Johnson’s government has faced criticism that his officials don’t abide by the same rules as ordinary people. Examples include a lengthy road-trip then-adviser Dominic Cummings made at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, and former Health Secretary Matt Hancock having to resign in June after being caught in an embrace.

Companies are urging Johnson to speed up changes to self-isolation rules after hundreds of thousands of employees from across the economy were removed from the workplace because of a surge in alerts that they should stay at home.

“If it is a pilot, why can’t employers apply for their workers to be members of this pilot?” Ashworth said on Sky News.

Jenrick, the U.S. housing secretary, told Sky News he appreciated “the frustration” the public might experience at the news, adding that the pilot projects are not limited to politicians; a range of organizations including workers on the London underground network are taking part.

Johnson and Sunak were likely pinged after Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he had the virus.

Javid, 51, who took over the health portfolio from Hancock in June, said Saturday he was was isolating at home with his family after a positive test, and that his symptoms were “very mild.” The health chief said he’s fully vaccinated, and tweeted in March that he received the AstraZeneca shot.

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