COVID-19 is starting to rip through the top of Government and its senior medical advisers, leaving aides wondering: “Who’s next?”
The revelation that Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock were infected sparked an urgent operation to ensure a core team remained free of the infection.
It also set off a scramble to find those the pair had been in touch with while they were contagious.
However, it left ministers facing allegations that their business-as-usual approach had allowed the bug to spread. Professor Susan Michie, director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London, said: “Whilst the PM was telling people to stay at home and keep at least two metres apart from each other, the House of Commons was open for business and face-to-face parliamentary activities were carrying on.”
Mr Johnson says he will remain in charge of the Government’s fight against coronavirus.
But Downing Street confirmed that Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State Dominic Raab would stand in if Mr Johnson became too unwell to continue.
If Mr Raab was also ill, the PM has the power to delegate responsibility to any of his ministers.
It is understood Chancellor Rishi Sunak and then Michael Gove are next in command.
The PM has been in close contact with more than a dozen senior members of government and advisers over the past week.
The infected are contagious for about 60 hours before they start showing symptoms, studies suggest.
No10 dispelled fears the PM could have infected the Queen, pointing out that he had not met Her Majesty since March 11 — more than a fortnight ago.
On Tuesday, the PM was in the same room as Mr Hancock and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, who is also in self-isolation after displaying symptoms.
The next day, Mr Johnson took an extended Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, where he was in touching distance of Home Secretary Priti Patel, Mr Gove and Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Government chief whip Mark Spencer was sat about a metre away from him on the bench.
Mr Johnson’s parliamentary aide Alex Burghart also came in close contact as he handed the PM his notes, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was within touching distance across the Commons dispatch box.
Later that evening — 24 hours before he started to show symptoms — the PM stood alongside Professor Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance at a press conference in No10.
On Thursday evening, Mr Johnson appeared alongside the Chancellor Rishi Sunak as they took part in the Clap for Carers campaign in Downing Street.
But the pair stood two metres apart and Mr Sunak has not shown symptoms nor been tested.
The Chancellor worked from home yesterday and will not return to his Treasury office until Monday.
Downing Street aides insisted the PM has since been self-isolating in his flat and has not come into close contact with anyone else.
But a couple of No10 aides have also been self-isolating over the past week after showing symptoms.
Mr Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings set tongues wagging yesterday when he was seen running from No10 with a large bag but aides said he was just late for a meeting.
The list of people Mr Hancock has been close to is even more extensive.
On Tuesday, he stood next to Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, and Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer.
The following day — when he started showing symptoms — he sat next to Mr Gove.
He also appeared on BBC2’s Question Time alongside five other guests including the Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham and TUC leader Frances O’Grady.
He was also accused of failing to socially distance himself from the family of 19-year-old motorcyclist Harry Dunn, killed in an accident involving a spy who fled to the US before being charged over his death.
Mr Hancock was said to have hugged the family and shaken their hands at a March 18 meeting.
Unlike ordinary people, senior members of the Government can get a test because of their importance to the fight against Covid-19.
Dr Harries said: “The PM plays a very critical role in that and that was the basis for the testing.”
But, despite the flurry of cases, Downing Street said senior ministers, officials and aides would be tested only if they developed a fever or persistent cough.
Last night, Mr Gove attempted to fend off criticism that the Government had failed to observe the same restrictions it tried to impose on the rest of the country.
He said those who were central to the battle against the pandemic would be tested.
He added: “The fact the Prime Minister and Health Secretary contracted the virus is a reminder the virus does not discriminate. We are all at risk.
“That is why it’s so important we practise social distancing measures.”