Alok Sharma met Prince Charles at Clarence House three days after a staff member in the business secretary’s private office tested positive for Covid-19, it has emerged.
The Guardian disclosed this week that the employee in Sharma’s inner circle received the positive result last Monday, after a union health and safety inspection report had identified concerns over social distancing in his office.
Sharma had a meeting involving the individual on the Thursday before the test result, and the pair were in the department’s Whitehall office the following day. Sharma then flew to South Korea on the Saturday, where he continued meeting foreign dignitaries after being informed of the positive test, while other colleagues were forced to self-isolate.
Now the Guardian has learned that once back in the UK, Sharma met Charles last Thursday. An entry on the court circular for 29 October states: “The Prince of Wales this morning received the Rt. Hon. Rishi Sunak MP (Chancellor of the Exchequer). His Royal Highness afterwards received the Rt. Hon. Alok Sharma MP (Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy).”
A spokesperson for Sharma stressed that Clarence House was made aware of the confirmed Covid test in Sharma’s office before the meeting, and it was agreed that it should go ahead as he did not have symptoms and had not been told to isolate. They said Sharma had had no “close contact” with the staffer who tested positive.
The department has refused to disclose how long Sharma’s meeting with the employee who tested positive lasted or the number of staff forced to isolate.
The government says a person who catches coronavirus can be infectious from up to two days before they are symptomatic, for up to 10 days thereafter, and can pass on the infection even if they have no symptoms. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization states: “The time from exposure to Covid-19 to the moment when symptoms begin is, on average, 5-6 days and can range from 1-14 days.”
If an individual is informed by NHS test and trace that they are a “contact” of someone who has caught Covid-19, by law they must isolate for 14 days from their last point of contact with the person.
Charles contracted coronavirus in March, and later said he “got away with it quite lightly” after experiencing only mild symptoms. It emerged this week that Prince William tested positive for Covid in April, which was not made public at the time.
There have been documented cases around the world of individuals catching the disease twice, including in the US where researchers last month reported the country’s first confirmed coronavirus reinfection.
Unions representing civil servants wrote to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) permanent secretary, Sarah Munby, last month to express “extreme concern” following confirmed cases there. There are understood to have been two other recent Covid cases among BEIS staff.
A Public and Commercial Services (PCS) health and safety inspection of BEIS’s office carried out on Thursday 22 October – the same day of Sharma’s meeting including the individual who has tested positive for Covid – noted: “Ministerial offices, especially SoS [secretary of state], were very crowded and by far the busiest part of the building … We believe there are too many people (8 PO staff when we inspected) routinely in the SoS’s private office to enable social distancing and so protect the health and safety of all staff.”
A spokesperson for the business secretary, who previously pointed out Sharma had tested negative before and after his South Korea trip, said: “The business secretary had no close contact with the staff member who tested positive at any stage. At no point has Mr Sharma been told to self-isolate either by NHS test and trace or through the NHS Covid-19 app, because he and the staff member were not in close contact at any stage.
“Clarence House was informed of the situation ahead of the meeting and it was agreed it could progress as planned as Mr Sharma did not have symptoms and had not been told to self-isolate. Mr Sharma has followed all of the government’s guidelines at all times.”