Boris Johnson has said his body “is bursting with antibodies” after he was forced into self-isolation on Sunday night just as he embarked on a crucial week designed to restore calm and project an air of competence after a vicious No 10 turf war.
There were concerns Covid-19 had returned to Downing Street as the result of a 35-minute meeting between the prime minister and a group of Conservative MPs at No 10, one of whom subsequently tested positive for the virus.
Johnson was pictured standing next to Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, inside Downing Street on Thursday. The men appear to be less than 2 metres apart and neither is wearing a mask.
Quizzed about why neither man was wearing a face covering, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, told Sky News: “They are socially distanced, and the critical thing is, of course, as prime minister you do meet people.”
Pressed on the absence of masks, Hancock eventually said they were not always worn around No 10. Asked if he used one when there, he said: “Not always, no, because the Covid-secure guidelines for that building don’t require it at all times. Different workplaces have different rules, according to what is appropriate there.”
Asked whether this could hamper Johnson’s ability to carry out last-minute negotiations in a potentially crucial week for Brexit, Hancock said: “I’m sure that if the prime minister needs to speak to anybody in Europe, then he’ll be able to do that by Zoom.”
In a video posted to Twitter, Johnson said: “Hi folks, the good news is that NHS test and trace is working ever-more efficiently, but the bad news is that they’ve pinged me and I’ve got to self isolate because someone I was in contact with a few days ago has developed Covid.
“It doesn’t matter that we were all doing social distancing, it doesn’t matter that I’m fit as a butcher’s dog, feel great – so many people do in my circumstances.
“And actually it doesn’t matter that I’ve had the disease and I’m bursting with antibodies. We’ve got to interrupt the spread of the disease and one of the ways we can do that now is by self isolating for 14 days when contacted by test and trace.”
Johnson tested positive for Covid-19 at the end of March and was admitted to a London NHS hospital on 5 April, which Downing Street said was a “precautionary step” as his symptoms persisted.
Officials insisted Downing Street was a Covid-secure workplace but said NHS test and trace had said factors including the length of the meeting meant Johnson should self-isolate as a precaution.
The prime minister will have held meetings with several other figures since Thursday, including his aides Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, who resigned last week before being ordered by Johnson to leave on Friday following a 45-minute meeting at No 10.
The advice for Johnson to self-isolate for 10 days comes at a difficult moment for the government. He is expected to continue to make public statements from inside No 10, including on the government’s green plans. This is also a pivotal week for Brexit, as negotiations with the EU reach their final phase.
Downing Street said Johnson will liaise with parliamentary authorities about remote participation in House of Commons proceedings. Under the “hybrid” parliament arrangements, MPs can only take part in some proceedings by video link. It is not clear if he will participate in prime minister’s questions on Wednesday.
A No 10 spokesperson said: “The prime minister will follow the rules and is self-isolating. He will carry on working from Downing Street, including on leading the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The PM is well and does not have any symptoms of Covid-19.”
In his own Facebook post, Anderson said he had developed coronavirus symptoms on Friday, and received a positive result by Sunday. He added: “I feel absolutely fine and my biggest concern is my wife who is in the shielded group.”
Johnson contracted the disease himself in late March, shortly after announcing the first nationwide lockdown. He initially continued to work in Downing Street before his health worsened and he was taken to intensive care.
Others who tested positive or suffered symptoms included Hancock, England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, the former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, and Cummings.
With a decision due as early as this week on whether a Brexit deal with the EU is achievable, a Downing Street spokesperson had been forced to insist on Sunday that the prime minister would not “veer off course” after days of turmoil.
Johnson was expected to signal his determination to press ahead with the “levelling up” agenda on Monday in a meeting with members of the Northern Research Group of MPs, led by his former ally Jake Berry.
Later this week, with an eye on the new US president-elect, Joe Biden, Johnson is to make a series of green announcements, expected to include confirming a plan to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles within a decade.
He was also planning to work on England’s emergence from national lockdown restrictions in two weeks’ time, after Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) warned that a return to the tiered system of controls would let the virus surge again before Christmas.