Tony Blair has denied Tory claims that he breached COVID-19 restrictions by failing to self-isolate for a fortnight after a two-day trip to the US on a private jet.
According to The Sunday Telegraph, the former prime minister was pictured leaving a restaurant in London’s Mayfair 10 days after returning from Washington last month.
The paper claims Mr Blair appealed to Whitehall officials for special dispensation from the COVID-19 rules, but was not issued with the formal exemption letter he would have needed to avoid the 14-day isolation period.
A spokesman for the former prime minister told the paper he was invited by the US government because of the role he played in the agreement between Israel and the UAE, describing the ceremony as a “diplomatic conference”.
He was advised to follow rules on attending international conferences, having travelled to the US for a ceremony at the White House at which Israel signed agreements establishing formal relations with Bahrain and the UAE, his spokesman said.
Mr Blair posed no risk to anyone as he was tested before his departure, on arrival at the White House, and again several times since returning to the UK, his spokesman added.
“We believe he followed all UK and US government guidelines as advised,” his spokesman said. “He was not refused exemption by the UK government.
“He was told to follow the guidance on international conferences, which he did; the US government had cleared the visit because it was for the diplomatic conference at the White House.
“Mr Blair was tested for COVID before departing the UK, on arrival at the White House, when he returned to the UK and has been tested several times since. All tests have been negative.”
And a Foreign Office spokesman said: “The FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) provides travel exemptions to diplomats travelling on business relating to the interests of the UK, representatives of international organisations, and their families and dependants. Those issued an exemption will not need to self-isolate.”
But former Tory minister David Jones, a member of the public administration committee select committee of MPs, claimed it was hard to see how Mr Blair could rely on claiming he had been tested “when we haven’t got a testing regime”.
Mr Jones told The Sunday Telegraph: “It sets an appalling example to travellers if a former prime minister appears to flout the rules in such a flagrant manner.”
The international conferences exemption to the quarantine rules applies to diplomats, staff at international bodies such as the UN and formal representatives at international conferences who have been “granted privileges and immunities”.
The Telegraph reports that Mr Blair flew to Washington DC on 14 September and was pictured with other guests on the South Lawn of the White House, holding a face mask in his hand as he posed for pictures with US political figures including Frank Luntz, the veteran pollster, and Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives.
Mr Luntz told The Sunday Telegraph: “Tony Blair was a rock star at this event. People were lining up for photos with him.”
Mr Blair then returned to the UK on 16 September and the Telegraph claims that 10 days later on 26 September he was seen leaving Harry’s Bar in London’s Mayfair.
Last month, Mr Blair urged the government to bring in mass coronavirus testing at airports and cut quarantine times to five days as an alternative to the blanket 14-day quarantine, saying it would have “significant benefits both to individuals and the economy”.
Another 16,171 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the UK on Saturday, with 150 more deaths.
The total number of positive cases nationwide now stands at 705,428, according to government figures.