Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have been forced into a U-turn and will self-isolate after coming into contact with the health secretary, who has contracted Covid-19.
The UK prime minister and chancellor had initially tried to avoid isolation by saying they were part of a pilot testing scheme, prompting an outcry from members of the public and backbench Conservative MPs.
Their U-turn came after only three hours amid chaos at No 10 over plans to drop many Covid restrictions for “freedom day” on Monday, and minutes after the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, had defended their plans to continue working from Downing Street.
It means the prime minister, chancellor and health secretary will all be isolating, along with hundreds of thousands of others due to exposure to coronavirus, when restrictions are dropped across England from Monday.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “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.”
Sunak tweeted: “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 I’ll be self-isolating as normal and not taking part in the pilot.”
Javid tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday. The prime minister is reported to have had a lengthy meeting with him at No 10 on Friday.
Downing Street earlier confirmed Johnson and Sunak were part of a pilot scheme that allows certain people to have daily rapid flow tests instead of having to self-isolate. “They will be conducting only essential government business during this period,” said a spokesperson.
Reaction to the news was rapid and furious, with instances on social media of people reporting they were going to delete the NHS Covid-19 app from their phones.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said many people across the UK would be dismayed by the “special, exclusive rule” for Johnson and Sunak.
“There will be parents across the country who have struggled this year when their children have been sent home because they were in a bubble and had to self-isolate,” he told Sky News.
“There will be workers across the country that have to isolate because they’ve been pinged, including in public services, including the NHS. For many of them, waking up this morning to hear that there is a special rule, an exclusive rule, for Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, they will be saying that this looks like one rule for them and something else for the rest of us.”
Kate Nicholls, the CEO of UK Hospitality, which represents bars, hotels and others in the sector, said: “It cannot be right that only those on pilot projects are exempt from the need to self-isolate. We need a workable and pragmatic self-isolation policy which keeps people safe but also keeps the economy moving.”
Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the Green party, said: “Hundreds of thousands of young people, including my children, had their education and lives repeatedly turned upside down again and again after dutifully and responsibly isolating. And now this. Anger doesn’t begin to cover it.”
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications at Downing Street, described it as the “Johnson-Sunak test pilot scandal” and predicted it would “cut through” to the public even more directly than the controversy surrounding the lockdown journeys undertaken to Durham by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser.
Downing Street is one of 20 organisations, including other government departments, Transport for London and Network Rail, which are part of a workplace testing study in which participants can test daily at work rather than stay at home.
Organisations taking part have to have an asymptomatic testing site set up. Individuals who have been “pinged” after being in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid can go to work on the basis that they are using lateral flow tests, but must self-isolate when not at work.
The organisations known to be part of the trial have given their consent to be identified, according to No 10, which added that a full list would be published after the results have been recorded.
A spokesperson said the study was separate from a better known pilot scheme, outlined online by the Department of Health and Social Care, which splits participants at random into two groups. In that study, those in a control group will be given a PCR test and must self-isolate as normal for 10 days, while participants in another group benefit from having a 24-hour release from self-isolation if daily lateral flow tests return negative results.
Javid was self-isolating on Saturday after testing positive for Covid, as senior public health leaders from across the UK accused Boris Johnson on Sunday of “letting Covid rip” by relaxing legal restrictions.
The health secretary, who is double-vaccinated, said he had mild symptoms and confirmed the result of a lateral flow test with a positive PCR test.
“I will continue to isolate and work from home,” Javid tweeted.