No 10 says PM was ‘already at Chequers’ when told to isolate – as Starmer slams initial bid to ‘dodge’ quarantine

Politics

Downing Street has said the prime minister was already at his country retreat when he was contacted by NHS Test and Trace and told to isolate – as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer labelled Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s initial decision to “dodge” quarantine as “crass and insensitive”.

According to the prime minister’s official spokesman, he was contacted by NHS Test and Trace while at Chequers this weekend after Health Secretary Sajid Javid tested positive for COVID-19.

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PM explains U-turn on self-isolation

He confirmed Mr Johnson has been tested and is negative.

After it was revealed that the PM and chancellor had been identified as close contacts of Mr Javid, the government announced that the pair would take part in a pilot scheme which sees isolation replaced by daily testing.

But there was a swift U-turn following a backlash, with Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak now isolating.

Fielding questions about the row at a regular Westminster briefing with journalists, the PM’s spokesman initially said Mr Johnson travelled to Chequers “at the start of the weekend, but I don’t have the exact time”.

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Later in the briefing the spokesman said: “My understanding is that the prime minister travelled to Chequers on Friday.”

The spokesman then suggested Mr Johnson had left for Chequers on “Friday morning”, before correcting himself several minutes later to say that the prime minister had in fact met Mr Javid on Friday morning and did not leave Downing Street for Chequers until 3pm.

“The prime minister followed the correct process, he was contacted by NHS Test and Trace and has isolated subsequently,” he said.

Analysis by Tom Rayner, digital politics editor

While Keir Stamer was making his live statement from Labour headquarters, political journalists were grilling the prime minister’s official spokesman in the regular daily lobby briefing. Some of the “unanswered questions” the Labour leader said Boris Johnson needed to address were being put to the spokesman almost as he was asking them.

On the issue of whether the prime minister travelled to his country retreat before the health secretary started displaying COVID symptoms, Mr Johnson’s spokesman was initially vague, saying he had travelled to Chequers “at the start of the weekend”.

Eventually he confirmed it was 3pm on Friday when the prime minister left Number 10, having met with Sajid Javid earlier that morning.

Mr Javid, Downing Street stressed, did not test positive by lateral flow until Saturday lunchtime, and the result of a confirmatory PCR test was not received until Sunday.

But the initial shakiness of Number 10’s timeline might well lead to further questioning of the official account – something the prime minister may need to address directly when he takes question at a virtual COVID news conference later today.

The bigger issue, however, is the prime minister’s justification of how he went from not self-isolating, to self-isolating in just a matter of hours on Sunday morning.

In a social media video Boris Johnson said the pilot had only been “briefly considered” but Sir Keir said that was “completely inconsistent” with the press notices put out by Number 10.

The latest explanation from Mr Johnson’s spokesman – that the prime minister and chancellor wanted to “make clear they are following the wider rules” – is unlikely to satisfy the Labour leader.

But Sir Keir said the furore was another example of ministers believing there is “one rule for them, and another for everyone else”.

“Let’s be clear: Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak only went into isolation because they were busted,” he said.

“With family events cancelled, businesses having to close and workers having to go without pay, Johnson and Sunak’s attempts to dodge isolation were crass and insensitive.

“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.

“That’s why I’ve written to the prime minister, because there are still far too many unanswered questions.”

Sir Keir called on the government to release a list of ministers who had been part of the trial which sees isolation replaced with daily testing.

Mr Johnson’s spokesman refused to answer a question about whether the prime minister’s wife, Carrie Johnson, was with him at Chequers.

Downing Street also confirmed the chancellor is isolating “in his flat above Number 10”, but would not confirm whether other officials have been required to self-isolate.

On Sunday morning, a Downing Street statement on behalf of Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak said they would take part in a workplace contact testing pilot rather than self-isolate, before the decision was reversed hours later.

Asked about the reason for that U-turn, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “I think the prime minister set out his rationale in the video he put out over the weekend.

“We recognise that isolation, given the high prevalence currently, is something that a number of people are experiencing, and the prime minister and the chancellor wanted to make clear they’re following the wider rules that a member of the public is subject to currently.

“The workforce contact testing pilots are important because it’s useful to get that information that can help inform future decisions about how contact testing can be used going forward.”

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