London (CNN)The coronavirus has found its way to Boris Johnson for the second time in a year. The British Prime Minister, who overcame a serious brush with the virus earlier this year, is self-quarantining again after he came in close contact at Downing Street with a lawmaker who subsequently tested positive.
Questions over social distancing at Downing Street after Boris Johnson goes into quarantine
That the Prime Minister's official residence has once again become the location of a coronavirus outbreak has raised serious questions not just about how the UK government is handling the pandemic in the country, but how it's dealing with the risk inside its own buildings.
This time, Johnson's forced quarantine stemmed from an event attended by lawmakers on Thursday. Photos show Johnson standing unmasked and within two meters of several of these Members of Parliament, including Lee Anderson, who later tested positive for Covid-19. Others who attended the meeting have since confirmed that they too are self-quarantining, including two of the Prime Minister's political aides.
The building that hosted the gathering, 10 Downing Street, is not just the official home of the Prime Minister, but a place of work for hundreds more officials and advisers. It is a mixture of grand reception rooms and meeting rooms, where the Prime Minister hosts events and holds political meetings, and cramped, narrow corridors with leading to poorly ventilated offices where civil servants, political advisers and other support staff work.
Government staff have described to CNN their concerns at working in these conditions during a global pandemic, suggesting that in such cramped conditions, social distancing is nigh on impossible. One Downing Street insider explained that while the building had been made Covid secure by imposing measures such as one-way systems for the narrow corridors, in practice it is as hard to avoid people in the office space as ever before.
At the earlier stages of the pandemic, several staff working inside government buildings told CNN that they were concerned the inner circle of Johnson were acting as though they believed the virus would never make it as far as the heart of government, and that they were somehow invincible. These fears were exacerbated by incidents like Johnson saying publicly on March 3 that while visiting a hospital where he believed there were Covid patients he "shook hands with everybody."
While no one can say exactly how Johnson caught the virus earlier this year, many have pointed to an event at Downing Street on March 5, attended by one of his health ministers, who tested positive for coronavirus the following week. Johnson tested positive and began his first period of self-quarantine on March 27.
Johnson's first brush with the virus was, by his own admission, near fatal. The Prime Minister was forced into an intensive care unit after his condition declined rapidly through April. So severe was his illness that Johnson and his fiancé Carrie Symonds gave their son, born shortly after Johnson's time in hospital, the middle name "Nick", in tribute to two of the doctors who "saved Boris' life."
Despite Johnson's horrific personal experience, worker unions representing civil servants fear that the perceived complacency they identified at the start of the pandemic is returning to Johnson's government and placing staff at risk.
On Tuesday morning, a spokesperson for the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) confirmed to CNN that it will be balloting members working at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on possible strike action next month. Their complaint is that the department has insufficiently wound down its operations, meaning support staff are being forced to work in unsafe conditions.
Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said: "Most civil servants are working well from home and there should be no need for our support staff to continue to put themselves in harm's way at BEIS." A PCS spokesperson added that their members have "serious doubts as to the competency levels of ministers when it comes to following Covid safety measures."
The government defended Johnson's meeting with MPs and insisted that safety protocols were being followed at government buildings. "Number 10 and government departments have been made Covid-secure workplaces and every step is taken to minimize the risk of infection," a government spokesperson said Tuesday.
But it's undeniable that Johnson and his government have been widely criticized for their handling of the virus. Some believe that at the start of the pandemic, Johnson failed to grasp the detail and was too slow to act in a range of areas including lockdowns, building testing capacity and procuring essential protective and medical equipment.
Others say the government has been too in thrall to the scientists and is imposing restrictions in ways that are doing serious long-term damage to the economy, which in turn will be more harmful to the UK than the virus itself.
Whichever way you slice it, the UK has the highest deaths of any country in Europe and has suffered the worst downturn of any major economy, making it very hard to argue that something hasn't gone badly wrong.
One of the main difficulties that Johnson faces is that the early consensus as to the best response to the coronavirus has fallen apart. In particular, his own party is bitterly divided.
Any suggestion of fresh lockdown restrictions and he's accused of cowering to science and wrecking the economy. Any attempts to urge for calm and business-as-usual and he's behaving recklessly with the nation's health. Even as he sits alone in his office, Johnson is being privately criticized in some corners of Westminster for continuing his quarantine and impeding his ability to lead, despite testing negative.
Similarly, if Johnson were to end his quarantine early, he would be vulnerable to accusations of ignoring his own public health advice. He would also leave himself open to comparisons with Donald Trump, who has hosted super-spreader events in the White House and has consistently downplayed the threat the virus poses, despite being hospitalized by it himself. It is not a comparison that any politician in the UK would enjoy, given Trump's unpopularity.
All of which leaves Johnson locked up for two weeks, damned whatever he does with few avenues of sympathy -- even among his own party who think he's bungling the Covid challenge in myriad ways. And the only person he has to blame for this impossible position, many in Westminster whisper, is himself.