LONDON: File photo shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives an update on relaxing restrictions imposed on the country during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic at a virtual press conference inside the Downing Street Briefing Room. - AFP

LONDON: The UK government was thrown into turmoil yesterday by its own rules on COVID self-isolation just as it controversially prepares to ditch pandemic curbs in England. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and finance minister Rishi Sunak will be working remotely in the week ahead after they came into contact with a person infected with COVID, Downing Street said.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed on Saturday he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was now self-isolating for 10 days. He had a "lengthy" meeting with Johnson on Friday, according to the Sunday Times, and also appeared alongside other ministers in parliament last week. The prime minister nearly died of COVID last year.

Initially, a Downing Street spokesperson said both Johnson and Sunak were taking part in a government pilot that enables them to continue working from their offices, while self-isolating outside of work. Yet in an update after a storm of anger over the announcement, the spokesperson reversed position and said neither official was participating in the pilot, but would conduct business remotely.

Johnson will remain at the prime minister's country retreat at Chequers northwest of London, where he was staying when contacted by COVID tracing officials from the National Health Service (NHS). Sunak acknowledged the outcry provoked by Downing Street's initial statement, after millions of schoolchildren and workers were forced to stay home under the tracing rules.

"Whilst the test and trace pilot is fairly restrictive, allowing only essential government business, I recognise that even the sense that the rules aren't the same for everyone is wrong," he tweeted. "To that end I'll be self isolating as normal and not taking part in the pilot." The development came just as Johnson's government prepares to ditch most pandemic restrictions in England today, despite daily infection rates now topping 50,000 -- behind only Indonesia and Brazil.

Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour party, said the government was in "chaos" after sending mixed messages about what it expects the public to do from today. "Yet again the Conservatives fixed the rules to benefit themselves and only backtracked when they were found out," he said. "They robbed the bank, got caught and have now offered to give the money back."


The government insists that with two-thirds of the adult population now fully vaccinated, the risk can be managed despite rising infections, and Monday has been dubbed "freedom day" by many UK media. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told BBC television it was still the "logical moment" to replace legal diktats with "personal judgement", thanks to school summer holidays starting this week and the onset of hotter weather. But he conceded that the pandemic's current wave may not peak until September.

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour's health spokesman, said the government was being "reckless" with its plans for today, echoing many scientists who say the reopening endangers global health. "We are against opening up without any precautions in place," Ashworth told the BBC, attacking in particular the government's plan to drop a mandate for wearing masks.

Under the plan for England, all restrictions on social mixing and an order to work from home will be lifted. Nightclubs can reopen, and sports stadia, cinemas and theatres can operate at full capacity. The surge in infections sweeping Britain led to more than 530,000 people being instructed to self-isolate by an NHS app in the week to July 7, according to latest data.

Some companies such as carmaker Nissan have been losing staff en masse after they were pinged by the app-in a brewing crisis described by UK newspapers as a "pingdemic". Staff shortages caused by the isolation rules disrupted the London Underground network on Saturday, with one line suspended entirely.

Sunday newspapers carried industry warnings of food shortages if many more staff are forced home. From August 16, people who are fully vaccinated will no longer need to self-isolate after a close contact, but the government is under pressure to bring that change forward. Jenrick told Sky News that for now, the fact that Johnson and Sunak were contacted "shows that the system is working". - AFP