When Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak were identified as close contacts of Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, who recently tested positive for Covid, most people were expecting that they would go into self-isolation for 10 days. 

But instead, Downing Street announced that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor would take part in a pilot scheme allowing them to avoid self-isolation and continue working. 

Just 160 minutes later, Number 10 was forced into a humiliating U-turn following a backlash from Tory MPs, business leaders and the public, who questioned how the pilot was being run and the self-isolation rules themselves. 

In a further embarrassing climbdown, it has since been confirmed that Number 10 has withdrawn from the scheme entirely. 

But on Sunday night, Cabinet ministers warned that the damage may already have been done. 

One said: "It does look like it is one rule for politicians and senior civil servants and another rule for everyone else. I just wouldn’t have piloted it with the Cabinet Office."

Ministers’ involvement in the Monopoly-style "get out jail free card" scheme first emerged when Michael Gove used it to avoid self-isolation after he was "pinged" by the NHS Covid-19 App in May. Officials insisted Number 10 and the Cabinet Office had been formally signed up to the scheme.

On Sunday morning, in the wake of Mr Javid announcing that he had the virus, Number 10 issued a statement confirming that both "the Prime Minister and Chancellor have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace as contacts of someone who has tested positive for Covid".

Timeline: Sajid Javid’s week

Rather than spend 10 days in self-isolation, it went on to explain that both would "be participating in the daily contact testing pilot to allow them to continue to work from Downing Street. They will be conducting only essential government business during this period".

The daily contact testing workplace pilot covered "a variety of selected organisations" including Downing Street and "20 organisations from private and public sectors", the statement said.

But MPs, Cabinet ministers and members of the public were quickly united in fury that the ministers were dodging self-isolation as chaos caused by the Test and Trace app "pingdemic" continued to sweep the country.

Questions also emerged about how Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak were able to take part in the pilot. 

Half of those on the trial are supposed to be a control group that still has to follow the self-isolation rules. How did Mr Sunak and Mr Johnson both fall into the half of the pilot that allowed them to return to work after a lateral flow test? And how did Mr Sunak join the scheme if he worked for the Treasury rather than Number 10?

Number 10 said the Chancellor and the Prime Minister could sign up because Number 10 and the Cabinet Office were corporate members of the scheme and Mr Sunak was included because he lives and works in Downing Street.

But if Downing Street thought that would answer their critics, they were wrong. Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said it showed it was "One rule for them, another rule for everybody else", adding: "It’s contemptuous of the British public."

In a comment on Mr Johnson, he said: "The only reason that he’s U-turned on this is because he’s been busted. It’s like bank robbers who’ve got caught and now they’re offering the money back."

Sir Keir Starmer said of Boris Johnson: 'The only reason that he's U-turned on this is because he's been busted'

Credit: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images Europe

Richard Walker, the boss of supermarket chain Iceland, tweeted: "Shame the hundreds of Iceland staff who’ve been pinged can’t avoid self-isolation. We can all do a daily lateral flow test."

One group representing families bereaved by Covid said it showed the "Government has learned nothing since the Barnard Castle debacle", when former Downing Street chief adviser Dominic Cummings stayed in post despite breaking Covid rules to take his family to the north of England.

Dr Ellie Cannon, an NHS GP, pointed to the situation of an acquaintance who died and whose child was unable to go to the funeral because of self-isolation. She wrote on Twitter: "No-one found special pilot schemes for them."

Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, had volunteered to step in on the Sunday morning political shows at short notice to replace Mr Javid. The announcement about Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak came just half an hour before he started his first interview, and he found himself subject to a ferocious grilling. 

On Sky News, presenter Trevor Phillips asked him whether there was "a Cabinet minister that won’t have the luck to be a subject in this pilot if he or she suffers, is pinged?"

Mr Jenrick replied that he "entirely" appreciated that the scheme was not "available yet to wider members of the public and I appreciate the frustration that they might feel listening to this. They, like me or other members of the public who are pinged, will have to self-isolate in the usual way".

On the BBC, Andrew Marr began with "a very straightforward question – 540,000 people in this country have been told to self-isolate and are self-isolating. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are not. Why not?"

Mr Jenrick said: "It’s not just available for politicians … it’s being used by 20 organisations in the public sector, including large ones like TfL that runs the transport network in London and like Border Force."

Yet in a further farcical twist to the tale that claim had been thrown into doubt within hours, with Transport for London insisting it was not taking part, with some services disrupted by staff self-isolating. Sources claimed Home Office involvement was yet to be formally signed off.

The "pingdemic" continues to wreak havoc, with the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company announced it had been forced  to cancel its production of The Browning Version at Shakespeare’s Globe in London because of "an increasing number of Covid-enforced absences".

Two Netflix productions filming in the UK, Bridgerton and Matilda, halted production this weekend because of positive test results.

Number of contact tracing alerts sent in England

The head of Marks & Spencer warned that store hours may have to be cut, and the National Trust was closing shops due to a lack of staff.

The head of Britain’s ports warned of food shortages, while trains were cancelled and councils told residents that garden waste bins would not be emptied for 10 weeks due to staff shortages.

With forecasts that 10 million people could be self-isolating by mid-August unless the policy shifts, Conservative MPs were privately aghast and started to put in calls to their Government whips to complain that Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak were dodging self-isolation. The messages were passed on to Number 10.

Then, two hours 40 minutes minutes after the first message, a new statement was issued. Mr Johnson "was at Chequers when contacted by Test and Trace and will remain there to isolate. He will not be taking part in the testing pilot. He will continue to conduct meetings with ministers remotely", it said.

"The Chancellor has also been contacted and will also isolate as required and will not be taking part in the pilot."

Mr Sunak, by now isolating in his grace and favour Downing Street flat above Number 10, had issued his own statement on Twitter a minute earlier, perhaps to put some distance between himself and the chaos downstairs.

"I recognise that even the sense that the rules aren’t the same for everyone is wrong. To that end I’ll be self-isolating as normal and not take part in the pilot," he said.

Surveying the chaos, a Cabinet minister blamed a cock-up over a conspiracy, insisting Number 10 had issued its 8am statement about "carrying as normal" before properly considering "the implications of what they were suggesting".

A second said Downing Street had then become spooked by the "adverse reaction that seemed like it was in danger of cutting through".

At 3.20pm, Mr Johnson issued a video to tell his 3.5 million followers on Twitter that he would now be self-isolating at Chequers, his official country residence, until Monday next week.

Astonishingly, he tried to claim that the Government had looked at joining the scheme "briefly" rather than announce that the pair had done so. He stressed there would be no change to the rules. He said: "We did look briefly at the idea of us taking part in the pilot scheme which allows people to test daily but I think it is far more important that everybody sticks to the same rules."

Two hours later, just after 5pm, Downing Street announced that it had formally withdrawn from the pilot scheme. "Number 10 will not be taking part in the pilot from now on," a spokesman said.

But the climbdown seems unlikely to have come fast enough – or gone far enough – to dampen the anger that now looks set to overshadow what Mr Johnson once called the "terminus" of Covid restrictions.