Boris Johnson is currently self-isolating following a meeting last Thursday that included the MP for Ashfield, Lee Anderson, who subsequently tested positive for coronavirus.
The Prime Minister, who was hospitalised with Covid-19 in the first wave of the pandemic, wrote in a WhatsApp message to Conservative colleagues on Sunday night that: “It doesn’t matter that I feel fine – better than ever – or that my body is bursting with antibodies from the last time I had it. The rules are the rules and they are there to stop the spread of the disease”.
In the same message, he said of the meeting: “we were all following the guidance and socially distancing – see the Facebook photo”.
But the Facebook photo he refers to – and the content of the Prime Minister’s own WhatsApp message – appear to undermine his claim that he and his colleagues were following government guidance.
Meeting in person
The government’s guidance for “working safely during the coronavirus” in “offices and contact centres” says: “Only absolutely necessary participants should physically attend meetings and should maintain social distancing (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable).”
The guidance says “remote working tools to avoid in-person meetings” should be used to “reduce transmission due to face-to-face meetings”.
So was it “absolutely necessary” that the Prime Minister and his colleagues should meet in person at Downing Street? Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp message suggests otherwise.
Regarding his self-isolation, he wrote on Sunday night: “Will this slow me down or in any way impede my work in the next few days? Of course not.”
He continued: “Yes we have the spending review and the integrated security review and the small matter of the EU talks”.
“But”, he said, “we also have [virtual meeting software] Zoom and other miracles”.
If it’s the case that self-isolating does not “in any way impede” his work – and that use of Zoom is adequate as an alternative – then by the Prime Minister’s own account, it is not “absolutely necessary” to hold in-person meetings to get government business done.
So his meeting with Mr Anderson and a number of other Conservative MPs could, by the same token, have taken place digitally, as government guidance recommends.
We put this to Downing Street to see if there was some other explanation for holding the meeting in person, but we have yet to hear back.
Did they observe social distancing?
Government guidance says: “When in the workplace, everyone should make every reasonable effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines set out by the government (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable).”
The “Facebook photo” the Prime Minister referred to on WhatsApp was posted by Mr Anderson on his own social media page.
It appears from the image that the two men were standing within 2 metres of one another when the picture was taken – which is considered acceptable under the guidelines so long as other mitigating actions are taken. One example given in the guidance is the use of face coverings.
However, no such mitigations are visible in the picture – nor in pictures taken of the Prime Minister stood next to other MPs who attended the same meeting and are now self-isolating.
It’s possible that other steps were taken but not caught on camera, though we’ve yet to hear back from Downing Street.