A cabinet minister has insisted the government isn’t “taking anyone for fools” as he struggled to defend Boris Johnson’s decision to dodge an instruction to self-isolate — before a humiliating U-turn.
The remarks from Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, came after the prime minister and the chancellor Rishi Sunak dropped their plans to sidestep 10 days’ quarantine by signing up to a pilot scheme trialling daily testing.
Both had been contacted by test and trace after Sajid Javid tested positive for Covid-19, but their attempt to exempt themselves while hundreds of thousands have been told to self-isolate in recent weeks sparked an immediate political backlash.
Despite an official statement being issued by No 10 on Sunday at 8am – stating that Mr Sunak and Mr Johnson would be participating in the pilot scheme allowing them to avoid isolation – Mr Zahawi insisted multiple times that the prime minister only “considered” whether to join the scheme.
A second statement was not issued by Downing Street announcing the U-turn that both the PM and chancellor would no longer be participating in the pilot for almost three hours.
“The prime minister considered whether they would subscribe to the pilot scheme, but actually rightly opted for self-isolation,” Mr Zahawi claimed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He added: “And then he [PM] quite rightly wanted to make sure he sends a very clear message to the nation.”
Challenged on whether the government was “taking people for fools”, Mr Zahawi replied: “Nobody is taking anyone for fools. Every decision the prime minister has had to make throughout this pandemic has been tough.
“I’ve been very closely involved since November when I took up this job as vaccines minister — the mobilisation, the largest in peacetime history, of the NHS, the armed forces, the volunteers, has demonstrated how we can come together.”
Quizzed on whether other cabinet ministers had avoided self-isolation, Mr Zahawi said: “Anyone who has come into contact with the health secretary [Mr Javid] whether cabinet ministers or civil servants, who have been contacted by NHS track and trace, are isolating following those rules.
However, Mr Zahawi’s comment that the prime minister only “considered” avoiding the rules appeared to be contradicted just moments later by his cabinet colleague Kwasi Kwarteng in a separate interview on LBC radio.
The business secretary said: “He [Mr Johnson] looked at the situation and made the right decision. The second decision.
“The first decision he reviewed and he said he would isolate like everyone else … I think he has done the right thing. I don’t think it was damaging.”
Speaking on Sunday, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak had been “busted” in an attempt to escape the consequences of the rules they had imposed on others.
“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.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey described the initial decision as “Barnard Castle on steroids”, in reference to Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-breaching trip to Durham. “I’m glad Johnson U-turned, right decision,” he added.
“But the fact he thought he could get away with it in the first place shows the utter contempt he has for the British people.”