Johnson Skirts Self-Isolation Through Covid Testing Program

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson won’t go into strict self-isolation after a recent meeting with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who later tested positive for Covid-19, a move that sparked immediate criticism from Labour.

Johnson and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will continue working from Downing Street and join a newly-announced “contact testing pilot,” a spokesman for the premier said in an email.

The top officials have been forced out of circulation ahead of Monday’s so-called “Freedom Day,” when Johnson’s government will end remaining coronavirus-related restrictions for England.

“They will be conducting only essential government business during this period,” the spokesman said.

The program requires the 20 participating organizations to have an asymptomatic testing site set up at their workplace.

It comes 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.

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 his then-adviser Dominic Cummings made at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, and former Health Secretary Matt Hancock having to resign after being caught in an embrace.

On Sunday, the opposition Labour Party’s health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News the public would view the decision as “one rule for them and something else for the rest of us.”

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.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick 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.

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

So-called “breakthrough infections” have been experienced by some of the billions of people who’ve been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. In most cases, vaccines have prevented severe illness and death.

Johnson has pushed toward Monday’s reopening measures with Javid’s backing, even as new cases surge and the government swerves once more on its travel guidance.

Many international health experts have slammed Johnson’s plan to lift almost all of England’s pandemic restrictions.

Scientists’ Concern

Hundreds of scientists supported a letter to the U.K. medical journal The Lancet published July 7, warning that the strategy could allow vaccine-resistant variants to develop, and was “dangerous and premature.”

The U.K. reported 54,674 new Covid cases on Saturday, the highest in six months, as the spread of the delta variant pushes infection rates near records for the entire pandemic. Hospitalizations rose to 3,964, the most 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, compared with more than 1,800 in a single day at the pandemic’s peak in January.

Johnson’s government foresees daily cases potentially exceeding 100,000 by next month as the contagious delta variant, first identified in India, dominates. More than two-thirds of adults have received both Covid shots, Javid announced on Wednesday, leaving younger people, who’ve been last in line for inoculation, particularly vulnerable to the delta variant.

‘Amber Plus’

Late Friday, the U.K. reimposed quarantine rules on travelers returning to England from France -- adding a new “Amber Plus” category to the current traffic-light-based system. The government cited the “persistent presence” in France of the beta variant, even though the virus rate in the U.K. is currently higher than in France.

Messaging also remains inconsistent, with British airlines and airports saying on Friday that passengers must continue to wear face masks after mandatory government requirements give way to a more voluntary regime.

Javid on Tuesday posted photographs of himself meeting residents and staff at a care home in Streatham, south London. The facility, Aashna Care, has a 100% vaccination rate among staff and residents, the BBC reported. Javid spoke in Parliament the same day, taking questions on health and social care.

Johnson had a brush with death from a severe case of Covid-19 in April 2020, months before vaccines were available. He spent three nights in intensive care at a London hospital and credited the country’s National Health Service with saving his life. Hancock also caught Covid-19 during the first wave.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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