POLITICO Sunday Crunch: Screeching u-turn — Freedom jitters — Taxing questions
18th July 2021
3 THINGS TO KNOW
1. SCREECHING U-TURN: Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are self-isolating this afternoon after plans to allow them to take daily tests and continue working in Downing Street were abandoned following a major backlash.
PR disaster: The prime minister and chancellor faced a huge public messaging disaster after Downing Street said they would take part in a testing “pilot” allowing them to continue going to work, while most of the population who are pinged have to stay at home.
2 hours, 38 minutes: That’s how long it took for a change of course. The original statement confirming the pair would carry on working from Downing Street, a day after Health Secretary Sajid Javid tested positive for COVID-19, dropped at 8 a.m.
Just after 10.30 a.m., Sunak announced on Twitter that he would not be taking part in the pilot after all, with a statement from Downing Street landing minutes later.
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The latest line: The Prime Minister “was at Chequers when contacted by Test and Trace and will remain there to isolate,” a spokesman announced. “He will not be taking part in the testing pilot,” he added.
But but but… That was not before Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick endured a torrid Sunday morning media round attempting (and failing) to defend the indefensible.
Frustration nation: Jenrick had told Sky’s Trevor Phillips he appreciated the “frustration” people would feel. He insisted the pilot was available to a “range of organizations” and it meant they could “conduct important government business.” All while insisting (a day ahead of restrictions easing tomorrow) that “the public who are pinged, will have to self-isolate in the usual way and that’s a really important part of our plan to keep COVID under control.”
Reminder: Some 530,126 alerts telling people to self-isolate were sent in the week to July 7— a 46 percent rise on the previous week. Factories, shops, restaurants and many other businesses are facing labour shortages blamed on the increasingly frequent “pings” from the COVID-19 app.
Labour making hay: An incredulous Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth was quick out of the blocks telling Phillips there would be parents, workers, including in the public sector, who would be waking up “to hear that there is a special rule, an exclusive rule, for Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak.” Keir Starmer seized on the u-turn, comparing the two top Cabinet ministers to criminals who “robbed the bank, got caught and have now offered to give the money back.”
Barnard flashback: Lobby Akinnola of the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, whose father died from coronavirus last year, drew parallels with former adviser Dominic Cummings’ rule-breaking trip to Durham last year. “It’s like this government has learned nothing since the Barnard Castle debacle,” he said in a statement.
Pressure: The PM’s short-lived decision to take part in the pilot is likely to put further pressure on the government to more quickly bring in a test and release system for the wider population. Former de-facto Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green told Sky’s Trevor Phillips analysis of the scheme should be accelerated “because this might be a way out of the current problems of people not being able to go to work.” Wannabe PM Tony Blair warned that forcing millions into isolation risks strangling the economy in an interview with the Sunday Times.
But, but, but: Jenrick appeared to double-down on a mid-August easing of self-isolation requirements. “By waiting that extra six weeks, we should get to the point where a very significant number of additional people, particularly the younger people in their late teens and 20s, who came later to the vaccine program, have been double vaccinated,” he told Sky.
2. FREEDOM DAY JITTERS: The furore over Johnson and Sunak’s aborted testing trial decision overshadowed the many questions about whether so-called Freedom Day should be going ahead tomorrow as planned.
Crystal ball: Leading epidemiologist Neil Ferguson painted a pretty bleak picture of the weeks ahead, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr it was “almost inevitable” there would be 100,000 cases a day, and that it was “almost certain” the U.K. would get to 1,000 hospitalizations a day. Jenrick told Times Radio case numbers were “forecast to peak in late August, possibly even in September.”
“The real question is do we get to double that, or even higher?” he asked. Ferguson also warned the number of people with long COVID could go up by another half million, beyond the million already estimated to be suffering by the Office for National Statistics.
Irreversible roadmap? Ferguson said under a “worst case scenario,” with 2-3,000 hospital admissions per day, “there may be a need to basically slow spread to some extent.”
What about the teens? The Sunday Telegraph reckons the government will be advised that only vulnerable 12- to 15-year-olds, and those about to turn 18, will be offered a jab. That’d put the U.K. at odds with the U.S., Israel and France. Asked about the report, Jenrick said the government had not yet received final advice from its Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, but this will arrive “very soon.”
Robert’s reverse: Jenrick, who caused a backlash a few weeks back after saying he wouldn’t be wearing a mask when restrictions are lifted, had a half-hearted go at re-writing history on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show. It is now his “judgment” that he will “carry a mask and I’ll wear it when I’m in crowded spaces where I’m likely to come into contact with people who are not from my own household,” he said.
Beating Beta: There are also reports around this weekend that officials are discussing putting France onto the red travel list, after the government announced it would significantly tighten quarantine rules for those coming to England from the country from tomorrow.
3. ALSO WORTH KNOWING: After the FT reported on Friday that Jane Hartley, a Democratic fundraiser and former ambassador to France, has been sounded out to become the U.S. Ambassador to London, the Sunday Telegraph reports on disquiet in Washington over the selection.
LABOUR WARS: In what looks set to be a major row in the coming days, the Mirror says Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee will be asked to “proscribe” four organizations. It means members of Resist, Labour Against the Witchhunt, Labour In Exile and Socialist Appeal will be automatically expelled from the Labour Party. The plan is on the agenda for the NEC meeting on Tuesday.