Ministers and civil servants at three government departments are able to avoid self-isolation after being quietly invited to join a special pilot scheme that allows them to take daily tests and return to work, The Telegraph can disclose.
The scheme, nicknamed a Monopoly-style “get of jail free card” by MPs, is understood to have been used by Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, to avoid self-isolating when he returned from watching the Champions League final in Porto in May.
Government sources confirmed that three Whitehall departments, including all staff and ministers who work in the Cabinet Office and 10 Downing Street, had secretly signed up to the “daily contact testing workplace pilot”.
The Telegraph understands that several officials in 10 Downing Street have been able to use the scheme to return to work immediately after being notified by the NHS Covid-19 app.
The pilot also includes Border Force staff, which is part of the Home Office, and Department for Transport officials at Heathrow Airport, as well as staff who work for Network Rail.
As many as 20 other large companies, including major manufacturers and utilities, were asked to sign up, although the Department of Health is declining to name any of them, saying that the pilot only covers “selected organisations”.
An ‘us and them’ approach
On Tuesday, William Wragg, Conservative chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee, questioned why only some departments and companies were being given an effective free pass from self-isolation.
He told The Telegraph: “This seems to be an ‘us and them’ approach. It should not be like a Monopoly board when some people have a ‘get out of jail free card’.
“I would hope that the Government could lead by example and subject itself to the same inconveniences as other people. That is the only way that they can understand how everybody else is feeling.”
However, one government source said that the departments selected to join the pilot were chosen in part as they employed staff who were vital to the smooth running of government during the pandemic.
The scheme was recently quietly expanded to cover 60,000 workers, from the 40,000 initially envisaged when it was launched by Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, in May.
Under the scheme, anyone who works at the departments or the companies can avoid self-isolating if they take a daily Covid-19 test.
A government spokesman said: “A daily contact testing workplace pilot, jointly organised by DHSC [Department of Health and Social Care] and PHE [Public Health England], has been taking place to find out exactly how daily contact testing could work in different settings.
“It covers selected organisations and is running in conjunction with a general daily contact testing study open to anyone identified as a close contact of a positive case.
“These will play an important part in our evaluation of daily contact testing and how the approach to testing might evolve.”
Sources said that Mr Gove was unaware of the trial that the Cabinet Office had signed up to until he was contacted by the NHS App about his close contact with a Covid-19 sufferer.
Earlier this week, Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said the scheme had not yet been approved by ministers for the public at large.