Wednesday, July 28, 2021

international

Boris Johnson back in coronavirus quarantine on eve of Britains Freedom Day


LONDON - First, the new British Health Secretary Sajid Javid - three weeks on the job, in the middle of an explosion in cases, who had declared it was time to "live with the virus"- announced on Saturday that hed tested positive for the coronavirus and would self-isolate.

Then on Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Finance Minister Rishi Sunak said they'd been alerted by the National Health Service that since they had been in close contact with an infected individual - i.e., Javid - they must immediately quarantine at home.

The quarantine of the top leadership in a British government struggling to manage the pandemic comes less than 24 hours before Johnson plans to end almost all government mandates in England for mask-wearing and social distancing. On Monday, dubbed "Freedom Day" by the press, it will be a "personal choice" whether to mask or distance in most settings. A number of health experts have condemned the opening as a reckless experiment. Others say it is about time - and prudent given the lower numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.

Johnson got the word that he must quarantine while he was spending the weekend at Chequers, the prime minister's official countryside estate. According to his spokesman, the prime minister will spend Freedom Day not out and about, but instead conducting business, again, via remote teleconference.

The prime minister's quarantine comes as coronavirus infections explode in Britain, driven by the highly infectious delta variant, first detected in India. There were more than 53,969 new infections recorded in Britain on Saturday, almost double the number of recent cases in the United States and orders of magnitude more than the few thousand a day recorded in Britain in May.

Johnson was stricken by covid-19 early in the pandemic and spent days in an ICU on supplemental oxygen. He is fully vaccinated today, but his need to quarantine is, in part, his own doing.

Even as he will end all "legal diktats," as he put it, to enforce social distancing measures, his government continues to run its test-trace-isolate mobile phone app, which "pings" people if they have been in close contact with a newly infected individual.

This new phenomenon, called by wags a "pingdemic," saw more than 500,000 people pinged by the app last week and told to stay home. Employers and others fear that in a few weeks' time, millions of people in England and Wales could be sidelined from work, even if they are fully vaccinated, like the prime minister, and show no symptoms of infection.

In what is viewed by many as another fumbling of messaging by the prime minister, who rose to fame as a flamboyant newspaper columnist, Downing Street initially said that Johnson and Sunak could skip the self-quarantine by taking part in "a testing pilot."

"The Prime Minister and Chancellor have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace as contacts of someone who has tested positive for Covid," a spokesman said early Sunday. "They will be participating in the daily contact testing pilot to allow them to continue to work from Downing Street."

Michael Gove, a senior minister, also joined that pilot scheme and was able to avoid self-quarantine last month when he was pinged following a trip to Portugal to watch a soccer final.

On Twitter on Sunday morning, the reaction was fierce, with #oneruleforthem trending, and people pouring on the abuse, calling out this government as one that lives by double standards.

Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the prime minister and chancellor had been "busted yet again for thinking the rules that we are all following don't apply to them."

"The way the prime minister conducts himself creates chaos," Starmer charged, "and makes for bad government and has deadly consequences for the British public."

Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor, said that "NHS staff all over the country are protecting patients & colleagues by isolating, if contacted by the App."

She posted: "Our rota gaps & hence workload are horrendous. But we have to do the right thing. Why don't @BorisJohnson & @RishiSunak?"

New figures published last week show that the NHS covid app sent more than 520,000 self-isolation alerts in a single week - a record high, and up 46% from the previous week.

Factories, pubs, restaurants and other businesses are reporting staff shortages, with those getting pinged advised to quarantine at home for 10 days.

In schools in England, which are still in session, more than 800,000 students - or 1 in 9 - were out last week for virus-related reasons.

The self-quarantining rules are in place for another month. Many businesses have called for their fully vaccinated staff to be allowed to take a test rather than quarantine.

Some people, fed up, are simply deleting the app.

Andrew Marr, a BBC presenter, put it to Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick on his Sunday morning show that people were asking themselves why they should self-quarantine if senior figures in the government were not.

"This is about moral authority," Marr said. "This is the kind of thing that makes people ask: Why should we self isolate? Why should we keep our apps on when the prime minister and chancellor and other ministers seem to get outside the system?"

Jenrick said that the testing pilot applied to many front-line workers, not just Downing Street, which allowed them to continue their work. But he also said that if other members of the public are pinged, they should self-quarantine.

Johnson and his team heard the outcry. Within hours, the prime minister's spokesman said the prime minister will isolate at Chequers.

"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," according to the spokesman.

Sunak addressed the screeching U-turn directly.

Writing on Twitter, he said: "Whilst the test and trace pilot is fairly restrictive, allowing only essential government business, I recognize 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."

Published : July 18, 2021

By : The Washington Post · William Booth, Karla Adam