Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and his top finance official, Rishi Sunak, will go into self-isolation on Sunday, only hours after Downing Street said that they would avoid a quarantine, following contact with a cabinet minister who tested positive for the coronavirus.
The abrupt reversal by Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak, Britain’s top two government officials, came after their plans to enter a special program that would have allowed them to keep working at the office set off a swift and ferocious backlash from critics, who accused them of a double standard.
Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak were notified, or “pinged,” by the National Health Service after face-to-face meetings with the health secretary, Sajid Javid, who said on Saturday that he had mild symptoms of Covid-19. They had initially planned to avoid the normal requirement to isolate themselves by taking part in an N.H.S. pilot program that would have subjected them to daily tests.
Critics pointed out that hundreds of thousands of ordinary Britons similarly pinged by the health service had been forced to quarantine for 10 days, suggesting that the program was a way for the elite to avoid that burden.
“Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have been busted yet again for thinking the rules that we are all following don’t apply to them,” the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, said in a statement.
“The public have done so much to stick to the rules,” Mr. Starmer added. “At a time when we need to maintain confidence in self-isolation, parents, workers and businesses will be wondering what on earth is going on in Downing Street.”
After Mr. Javid’s announcement, the notification of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak did not come as a surprise, and neither has reported having any Covid symptoms. But their chaotic response, on the eve of the government’s plans to lift almost all virus-related restrictions, was the latest in a skein of U-turns and reversals dating to the beginning of the pandemic.
The episode illustrates the widening ripple effects of the health service’s highly sensitive test-and-trace app, which has notified more than 500,000 people in the past week that they should isolate themselves because they had come into contact with someone who tested positive.
The cascade of isolations has begun to cause staff shortages in pubs, restaurants and other workplaces. A major line of the London Underground, the Metropolitan, was closed Saturday evening because multiple staff members were pinged by the app. The Piccadilly and District lines were also affected.
The situation has raised further questions about the government’s plan to lift restrictions on Monday, even as cases have surged to more than 50,000 a day, largely because of the highly transmissible Delta variant. British news media have called July 19 “Freedom Day,” but for thousands of people who are either infected or have been in contact with an infected person, that phrase will ring hollow.
Under the health service’s pilot program, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak would have continued to work at Downing Street, which has been equipped with facilities to conduct daily tests. They would also still have been required to self-isolate when not at work. Mr. Johnson and his wife, Carrie, live in an apartment on the upper floors of 11 Downing Street, adjacent to his office. That building also houses Mr. Sunak’s office.
The news of the testing arrangement brought immediate criticism, with some pointing out that it was only the latest example of senior officials playing by different rules. By 11 a.m. in London, three hours after the original statement, both men backed off.
The prime minister was at his country residence, Chequers, when he was notified by the N.H.S. and will now stay there to isolate. “He will not be taking part in the pilot program,” a spokesman said in a statement.
Mr. Sunak said on Twitter that “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.”
“To that end,” he wrote, “I’ll be self isolating as normal and not taking part in the pilot.”
Mr. Johnson survived a serious bout of Covid in April 2020, when the virus first swept through Downing Street. At that time, he was admitted to an intensive care unit, leaving the government under the temporary direction of the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab. Mr. Sunak is not known to have ever contracted the coronavirus.
Mr. Johnson was forced to isolate again in November after being exposed to a Conservative lawmaker, Lee Anderson, who had developed Covid symptoms.
Mr. Javid became health secretary only three weeks ago after the resignation of his predecessor, Matt Hancock. Mr. Hancock had been caught up in a scandal involving an extramarital affair with a close aide, which violated social-distancing rules. Mr. Javid, a staunch advocate of easing restrictions, said that he had received two doses of a vaccine.
The N.H.S. pilot program is being tested at 20 sites, including Heathrow Airport, Network Rail, Transport for London and U.K. Border Force, with a goal of avoiding staff shortages in critical operations. It requires installing testing equipment that will detect even asymptomatic cases of Covid.
Downing Street portrayed the program as a way to evaluate “daily contact testing and how the approach to testing might evolve.” The proliferation of people getting pinged by the health service app has drawn criticism from people who say it will undercut the benefits of reopening the economy.
But the pilot program has received little attention in the broader public, and critics said it was merely another example of how the government’s lockdown rules did not seem to apply to the elite. Last year, Mr. Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, came under fire for driving 260 miles to his parents’ home when London was under lockdown.
After the moves by Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak, Ed Davey, leader of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, posted on Twitter, “How about the school teachers, transport workers and health workers getting a chance to be part of this test pilot or is it only for the privileged few?”
Mr. Davey later said he was glad that Mr. Johnson had reversed course, but, he added, “the fact he thought he could get away with it in the first place shows the utter contempt he has for the British people.”
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