A string of Conservative MPs are self-isolating following a meeting inside Downing Street that has forced Boris Johnson to spend a potentially crucial political week holed up inside No 10.
The prime minister, who was seriously ill with coronavirus in April, has insisted he is fine and that his body “is bursting with antibodies” after being ordered to self-isolate following a meeting with northern Tory MPs on Thursday.
Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, showed some coronavirus symptoms on Friday, and on Sunday received a positive test. A photo of the two at the meeting showed them seemingly less than 2 metres apart, and neither is wearing a mask.
Since then, three more Tory MPs at the event have said they are self-isolating, raising questions about why the meeting was not held virtually, and whether proper Covid guidelines were followed.
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.”
Quizzed about why the photo showed neither Johnson or Anderson 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.”
Brendan Clarke-Smith – the MP for Bassetlaw in the east Midlands, which had the biggest swing from Labour to the Tories in the country last year – later confirmed he was self-isolating, as did Andy Carter, the MP for Warrington South.
Following the Downing Street meeting, both MPs had posted very similar photos of themselves with Johnson to that taken with Anderson – appearing to be closer than 2 metres, and not wearing face coverings.
On Monday morning, Lia Nici, the MP for Great Grimsby, also said she had been contacted by test and trace after being at the same meeting.
One MP told the Guardian that there were so many MPs now in self-isolation that “the whips are running around frantically trying to find cover for the DL [delegated legislation] committees.”
Ministers use delegated legislation to make changes to the law under powers given to them in an act of parliament. A delegated legislation committee is set up to debate a statutory instrument – a form of legislation that allows the provisions of an act to be subsequently brought into force or altered without parliament having to pass a new act.
The prime minister will have held several other meetings since Thursday, including with 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 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.
The 14-day self-isolation period begins with the last contact with the infected person, meaning Johnson must stay inside his flat at Downing Street for another ten days.
Downing Street said Johnson would 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.
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.