Boris Johnson 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 that Covid-19 had returned to Downing Street as the result of a 35-minute meeting between the prime minister and a group of Tory MPs at No 10, one of whom subsequently tested positive for the virus.
Johnson was pictured standing next to Lee Anderson, 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.
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 PM will have held meetings with several other figures since Thursday, including his aides Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, who resigned this week before being ordered by Johnson to leave on Friday following a 45-minute meeting at No 10.
Johnson 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.”
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 the health secretary, Matt Hancock, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, 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.
Many senior Tories have reacted with jubilation to the departure of Cummings, whom they saw as a key cause of dysfunction and disarray in Downing Street. He and Cain, the director of communications, had clashed with Allegra Stratton, the new press secretary, who had the backing of Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds.
One MP cited the decision to put up a cabinet minister to appear on Monday’s Good Morning Britain show on ITV – which No 10 had boycotted since April – as an example of a new, less confrontational approach under Stratton.
The former attorney general Geoffrey Cox tweeted on Sunday to highlight the claims he had made about Johnson when introducing his leadership launch last year. These included a promise to “unify the Conservative family” and deliver “political leadership”. Each of the promises “is as powerful now as it was then”, Cox tweeted, in what appeared to be a call for a fresh start from the prime minister.
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, told the Guardian he hoped Cummings’ departure would be a moment to repair relations with Whitehall.
“If you’re going to reform the civil service, you need to build strong relationships. You can’t be battling the civil service, toxifying the relationship, undermining individuals, if you want it to deliver for you,” he said.
“There’s a dysfunctionality about the way government is working – they need to restore cabinet government, stop special advisers being No 10 narks, restore their relationship with ministers.”
He added that the government should immediately publish a report on allegations of bullying by Priti Patel, which has been held up for months.
Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, said he hoped Cummings’ departure signalled an end to what he called the “hostile environment”.
Pointing to the departure of a string of senior civil servants, including Sedwill and four Whitehall permanent secretaries, preceded in several cases by hostile briefing, Lord Kerslake said: “You need a genuine signalling of a willingness to work with the civil service on change. The problem has been not that the civil service is completely resistant to change, they just don’t like you going to war with them.”
With Cummings and his Vote Leave ally Cain both gone, Johnson will also have to make a decision in coming days about whether to strike a trade deal with the EU.
2/4 We are working to get a deal, but the only one that’s possible is one that is compatible with our sovereignty and takes back control of our laws, our trade, and our waters. That has been our consistent position from the start and I will not be changing it.
— David Frost (@DavidGHFrost) November 15, 2020
David Frost, who is leading the negotiations for the UK government, and whose own position was the cause of speculation after the resignations of Cain and Cummings, tweeted on Sunday that he would not shift his robust approach to the talks.
“We are working to get a deal, but the only one that’s possible is one that is compatible with our sovereignty and takes back control of our laws, our trade and our waters. That has been our consistent position from the start and I will not be changing it,” he tweeted.
The environment secretary, George Eustice, insisted the departure of Cummings – regarded as a hardliner on Brexit – would not affect No 10’s decision-making.
A No 10 spokesperson said: “This government is determined to improve opportunities for people across the country, regardless of their background or where they live in the UK.
“We were elected on an ambitious manifesto to deliver this agenda, investing in education, skills and our NHS, tackling crime and introducing tougher sentencing for those who commit the most heinous crimes, as well as concluding our trade negotiations with the EU.
“Our agenda remains focused on this, and we will never veer off this course, as we build back better from the coronavirus pandemic.”