Boris Johnson was not trying to take the public for “fools” by initially avoiding having to self-isolate, the vaccines minister has said.
Nadhim Zahawi said on Monday the prime minister realised it would be “wrong” for him and chancellor Rishi Sunak to use a pilot scheme to ditch quarantine.
On Sunday Johnson and the chancellor were both pinged by NHS Test and Trace after coming into contact with health secretary Sajid Javid, who subsequently tested positive for Covid.
The pair initially tried to get round the requirement to quarantine, being observed by thousands of people, by saying they would join a daily workplace testing programme being trialled by the Cabinet Office and No. 10.
But the government was forced into a hasty u-turn amid an angry public backlash at its two most senior figures should receive special treatment.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, Zahawi said: “No-one is taking anyone for fools.
“As soon as the prime minister realised that this would be wrong, he came out very clearly and said ‘We will self-isolate, that’s the right thing to do’.”
Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, told LBC the “second decision”, to isolate, taken by the prime minister was the “right thing”.
The row came as Johnson appealed to people to exercise their new freedoms with caution as most mandatory lockdown restrictions in England were lifted.
Social-distancing rules which, in one form or another, have governed people’s lives for over a year finally ended on Monday morning at one minute past midnight.
Face masks are no longer mandatory in shops and on public transport, limits on gathering have gone and the work from home guidance has ended.
Nightclubs, theatres and restaurants can fully reopen, while pubs are no longer restricted to table service only.
But Covid cases are continuing to soar and there are renewed warnings about the pressure on the NHS.
With new cases of the virus already having passed the 50,000-a-day mark, some scientists have expressed concern at the ending of restrictions while the Delta variant is spreading so rapidly.
Professor Neil Ferguson – whose modelling led to the first lockdown in March 2020 – said they could reach 200,000 before the current wave of the pandemic finally peaked.
He said that could result in 2,000 hospital admissions a day leading to “major disruption” and further backlogs in NHS services.