London: The U.K.’s battle to contain the coronavirus pandemic suffered a major setback on Friday when the prime minister and his two most senior health officials went into isolation with symptoms of the disease.
Premier Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock both tested positive for Covid-19, and the government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said he had symptoms and would self-isolate for a week.
While all three insisted they would carry on working, the dramatic developments — within the space of a few hours — added to the uncertainty over the U.K.’s strategy for dealing with the rapidly accelerating pandemic. The rate of infection in the country is now doubling every three to four days, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said on Friday.
Johnson has been criticized for taking too lax an approach to the outbreak. Earlier this month, he boasted about how he was happily shaking hands with medical staff at a hospital treating virus patients. At the same time, the World Health Organization was encouraging countries to close schools and introduce strict social-distancing measures.
There are now 14,579 confirmed cases in the U.K., an increase of 2,921 over the last 24 hours, according to the Department for Health and Social Care. A total of 759 people have died, an increase of 181 from the previous day. With the spread of the disease accelerating, the government announced plans to open two more temporary hospitals in Birmingham and Manchester.
The prime minister will self-isolate in his Downing Street home for seven days after a test on Thursday found he had the virus, his spokesman James Slack told reporters on Friday. Meals will be left at Johnson’s door while he continues to work by video-conference, Slack said.
“I’ve developed mild symptoms of the coronavirus, that’s to say a temperature and a persistent cough,” Johnson said in a video posted on Twitter. “Be in no doubt I can continue, thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, to communicate with all my top team, to lead the national fightback against coronavirus.”
Johnson was assessed by National Health Service staff on the advice of Whitty. The prime minister is the latest high profile individual to contract the virus after Prince Charles, the heir to the U.K. throne, also tested positive.
“I wish the prime minister a speedy recovery and hope his family are safe and healthy,” Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Twitter.
I wish the Prime Minister a speedy recovery and hope his family are safe and healthy.
Coronavirus can and does affect anyone. Everyone be safe. Our own health depends on everybody else.
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) March 27, 2020
Johnson, a libertarian by instinct, has at times appeared reluctant to restrict people’s movement and social interactions, measures medics advocate to slow the spread of the virus. As recently as March 3, he told reporters that while people should wash their hands, they could make up their own minds about whether to go on shaking hands.
“I can tell you I am shaking hands continuously,” Johnson told reporters in a clip that has since gone viral on Twitter. “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody.”
The prime minister’s condition means Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has had to move out of his office in No. 11 Downing Street, which is now being used by Johnson. While the premier works from No. 10, his official flat is above No. 11, next door. The doors connecting the two buildings have been closed off.
Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State Dominic Raab would stand in for Johnson if the prime minister is unable to carry out his duties. – Bloomberg