Boris Johnson is under pressure to end the "mad" system of self-isolation as he and two other top ministers were forced into quarantine on Freedom Day.
The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, are all isolating after the latter tested positive for Covid and the other two were identified as close contacts.
Downing Street initially said Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak would avoid the required 10 days in isolation by taking part in a pilot scheme allowing them to return to work. But it was forced into a U-turn after just 160 minutes following a backlash from MPs of all parties, businesses and the public.
Downing Street and the Cabinet Office have now withdrawn completely from the trial, The Telegraph can disclose.
In the wake of the farce, ministers are urging Mr Johnson to ditch the requirement for fully-vaccinated people to self-isolate entirely.
Monday was described as "Freedom Day" after the Prime Minister announced that it would spell the end of all legal Covid restrictions.
But it is set to be overshadowed by the "pingdemic", with hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom have been contacted through the NHS app, in self-isolation, causing chaos for businesses.
NHS Covid app venue alerts sent
Describing the system as "mad", one Cabinet minister said: "This ‘pingmageddon’ is getting ridiculous. We have got to get out of this mess and return to normality."
A second Cabinet minister said there was pressure on Mr Javid to bring forward the August 16 date on which double-jabbed people will be able to return to work after a negative PCR test.
The minister said the "pingdemic" had escalated since Mr Javid’s decision to back the date two weeks ago and that a rethink was now necessary, adding: "Opinions are divided within the Government about whether it would be better to bring it forwards.
"The Department of Health pushed for the six-week delay. So many people I know have been pinged – it is extraordinary. Last week was significantly more challenging than the week before."
Speaking from his official country residence at Chequers, where he is now self-isolating until Monday next week, Mr Johnson on Sunday pleaded with the public to be careful as restrictions are lifted, saying: "Please, please, please be cautious. Go forward into the next step with all the right prudence and respect for other people and the risks that the disease continues to present.
"And above all, please, please, please, when you’re asked to get that second jab and get your jab, please come forward and do it."
Mr Johnson insisted the right thing was to "stick with the programme" on self-isolation. He added: "I know how frustrating it all is, but I really do urge everybody to stick with the programme and take the appropriate course of action when you are asked to do so by NHS Test and Trace."
The number of new Covid cases has risen 43.3 per cent over the last seven days – but while hospitalisations and deaths have also risen, data reveals the rates are a fraction of those seen during previous waves.
Covid positive patients in hospital, England
Business leaders called for the self-isolation rules to be changed, with Lord Bilimoria, the CBI president, saying that "against the backdrop of crippling staff shortages, speed is of the essence". He added: "We urgently need a sure-footed approach from the Government, creating confidence to secure the recovery.
"This starts by immediately ending the self-isolation period of 10 days for people who are double jabbed and providing a route out of isolation for those not yet fully vaccinated through daily lateral flow tests."
Mike Cherry, the national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said it was "not too late to save Freedom Day" by issuing "clear messages".
On Sunday night, the Conservative MP William Wragg, who is the chairman of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee, said: "The whole system is patently ridiculous. Doubly jabbed people are the same now as they will be on August 16.
"More and more people will be deleting the app unless common sense prevails."
Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, added: "The rules proposed for after August 16 are sensible and reflect the reduced risk if fully vaccinated, but they need to be brought forward, along with altered app advice and sensitivity, to now.
"We are going to have to learn to live with Covid, trust the public to balance the risks of life and believe in the evidence that continues to show how effective our vaccines are."
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory MPs, added: "Daily tests are obviously a reasonable substitute for long periods of self-isolation. The current policy is hugely damaging for public services, families and businesses. The policy should change without delay."
Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair has backed the call, warning that 10 million people could be in self-isolation by August if the rules are not changed.
With both Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak self-isolating hundreds of miles apart, an expected critical announcement on the future of social care this week might be unable to go ahead because of the complications of negotiating the plans remotely.
On Sunday night, a poll by Savanta ComRes found that 60 per cent of voters thought it was unfair that Mr Johnson had planned not to self-isolate, and 75 per cent felt that though there was "one rule for members of the Government and another rule for everyone else".
Comment: It’s not too late to rescue Freedom Day with fair rules
We small business owners have been wrestling with mixed messages around England’s Freedom Day for weeks now, writes Mike Cherry.
First off, it was no holds barred from June 21 for all businesses, a great beacon of hope after more than a year of on-again off-again restrictions or – for a significant number – total, continuous closure since last spring.
Then there was a sudden, last-minute four-week delay, massively hurting those who had invested in safety measures, stock and staff for reopening. After that a new date, and detailed guidance around working safely, but with it a lack of clarity around liability and the liberty to enforce bespoke in-house safety measures.
Regarding the wearing of face masks on site, for example, we had to speak to the Government directly to decipher exactly where our members stand.
Of all the rules that still apply after Freedom Day, it’s those concerning self-isolation for the fully vaccinated which many small firms find most puzzling. We’ve always said that workplace testing would be critical to keeping Covid at bay as economies get back on their feet over the coming months.
As such, a lot of our members are wondering why, on the basis that two jabs plus regular testing massively reduces the chances of catching, carrying or becoming seriously unwell with the virus, those in this category are still facing significant restrictions until next month.
Indeed, the Government should consider that, by August 16, infections could be rising even more steeply than they are today – it risks putting the brakes on a mini boom now, only to find itself with some even more difficult decisions to make when that date rolls around.
As for the weekend just gone, nothing says mixed messaging quite like insisting that those at the very top of the Government should test themselves for Covid post-exposure rather than self-isolate first thing on a Sunday, only to insist that self-isolation is the way forward by mid-morning.
Individual decisions on this front aside, we now have a situation where those who are in government and part of a handful of big corporations and organisations have the option to test daily rather than self-isolate. It is, as a matter of fact, one rule for those who are part of this selective testing pilot and one rule for everyone else.
In its 2019 manifesto, the Government pledged to "ensure that regulation is sensible and proportionate, and that we always consider the needs of small businesses when devising new rules". Two years later, it doesn’t feel that way to many.
Consider the case of one member who contacted us recently to flag how Covid app pings were affecting their business, a guest house, bar and restaurant just outside York. After months of little to no revenue, they were all set to make the most of the staycation boom. They had their screens, distancing, table service, sanitiser and masks all set.
Then the phones started buzzing. One after another, members of the team were told to stay home for days at a time, even though they were testing negative for Covid. The whole place had to shut for days.
Eventually, the business scrambled together enough of a skeleton crew to reopen. Not enough, however, to bring the kitchen back into action. So the restaurant, a big draw and critical revenue source in normal times, remains shut.
It’s not too late to save Freedom Day, however, and rectify the situation with some clear messages and fair rules. Small businesses want to see that decisions are really being thought through.
This administration promised to be a champion of the small enterprises that make up 99 per cent of our business community, through good times and bad. We hope, over this most critical of summers, that it delivers.
- Mike Cherry is the national chairman at the Federation of Small Businesses