It was the perfect opportunity to lead by example, and show that nobody is above the rules.
And Boris Johnson blew it. The prime minister’s first instinct, when he was pinged by test and trace on the eve of what he insists on calling freedom day, was not to model the behaviour he asks of the nation, but to try to wriggle out of self-isolating. No 10 announced that he and the chancellor (also pinged) would instead join a special pilot scheme, allowing some employees in critical industries to work as normal in exchange for testing daily.
After the inevitable angry backlash from people who don’t have the option of dodging an enforced spell at home, Johnson swiftly U-turned and promised to hole up at his country retreat, Chequers, after all. But by then, the damage was done. “I know how frustrating it all is,” he said in a video urging people to follow the rules, which arguably only confirmed suspicions that he was doing so very reluctantly. Well, what did you expect? His whole life has been one long pilot scheme in seeing how far he can bend the rules and get away with it. He’s not going to change now.
What makes this episode dangerous, however, is that it comes just ahead of one of summer’s more painful tests of self-restraint, as schools begin breaking up for the holidays. Some families may get the dreaded email, letting them know their child has been in contact with a Covid case and should self-isolate, just as they’re packing for Norfolk or Cornwall. Will they all do the right thing, and cancel? What if it’s the third time the kids have been sent home and each one was a false alarm, and they have a tonne of leftover lateral flow tests that everyone could keep taking and – well, if it’s good enough for the prime minister, would a little secret pilot scheme of your own really be so terrible? A looming “pingdemic”, in which the lifting of restrictions creates a surge first in cases and then in contacts being told to stay home, could expose millions more to similar temptations. It’s no longer clear that a regime already crumbling at the edges can meaningfully hold until mid-August, when it’s due to be replaced by a system in England allowing the fully vaccinated to escape self-isolation if they test negative.
Ministers have already been forced to create a loophole for double-jabbed NHS staff who get pinged. From this week, if they’re needed on the wards they’ll be allowed to carry on working while testing daily, in a tacit acknowledgment that otherwise hospitals will struggle to manage this third wave. The suffering endured by non-Covid patients if operations are cancelled or diagnoses delayed for lack of staff is now thought to outweigh the risk of getting accidentally infected by doctors. But how long before other public services, or critical infrastructure businesses, start pleading for similar exemptions? About 1.6 million people had to self-isolate last week, and while nearly half were schoolchildren, that’s still enough adults off work to see trains cancelled, supermarket shelves lying empty and factories having to interrupt production. Now imagine what the projected summer doubling of cases to 100,000 a day, or worse, might do. A report from Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change estimates the number self-isolating could hit 10 million by mid-August, enough to bring the country grinding to a halt.
Maddeningly, all this was not just predictable but endlessly and publicly predicted in recent weeks, yet now it’s happening the government seems curiously frozen in the headlights of the oncoming train. True, the decision it now faces is an impossible catch-22. Scrapping self-isolation rules earlier for the fully vaccinated, as Blair among others have suggested, risks infections soaring even higher, but keeping them might mean businesses and services collapsing. “The problem is we don’t know what to do,” an anonymous minister explained to the Mail on Sunday at the weekend. Well, that much is obvious. But doing nothing, and allowing the self-isolation regime to crumble by default as people take decisions into their own hands, is arguably the worst of all possible options. What is the point of a leader, if it’s not to lead?