London – Boris Johnson was on his own. He had been self-isolating for a week since testing positive for coronavirus. His domestic staff left trays of food outside his apartment door.
Typically, the 55-year-old was bullish about life, even though the disease was at that moment working its way even deeper into his body. An old friend, Will Walden, sent him a text to ask how he was. “We’re going to beat it,” Johnson replied. Four days later, the British prime minister was lying in intensive care being given oxygen to help him breathe.
Now out of danger, Johnson on Thursday was allowed back onto the main ward at St. Thomas’ Hospital, where he had been admitted with a persistent cough and fever. But while his colleagues were relieved at the news, the question now being asked is how the leader of a Group of Seven country, one of the world’s biggest economies, was allowed to become so seriously ill when the nation needed him most.
In private conversations, senior aides, ministers and officials have raised concerns that a trail of errors exposed the prime minister to critical risk. It’s left the U.K. without a functioning leader to face its gravest peacetime threat, with the death toll nearing 8,000 and his deputy trying to convince people he has the power to act.
As countries worldwide examine their handling of the pandemic, Britain is still heading toward its peak. Yet already there has been a litany of criticism, from academics, doctors and even inside Johnson’s own Conservative Party, that the U.K.’s approach was too relaxed from the outset.
A few weeks ago, Britain felt like a different world. On March 3, after Italy was recording its first deaths, Johnson boasted that he had been “shaking hands continuously,” including with “everybody” he met on a tour of a hospital treating patients with COVID-19.
Then on March 7, Johnson and his pregnant fiancee, Carrie Symonds, went to Twickenham stadium to watch England play Wales at rugby, where they smiled and shook hands with members of the crowd.
For the next two weeks life carried on almost as normal inside Downing Street, despite the government urging the public to take precautions, and while other countries imposed lockdowns as the pandemic spread. Even after he announced the first U.K.-wide social distancing policies — on March 16 —Johnson held daily news conferences in the State Dining Room.
These afternoon media briefings were packed with reporters and camera crews. The premier stood at a lectern, often with Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and his colleague Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, on either side at his elbows. Nobody was standing or sitting the regulation two meters apart.
Ten days later, the cost was clear. Amid growing criticism of their strategy, both Johnson and Whitty were dramatically struck down and went into isolation with symptoms. So too did Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Johnson’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings. “They were washing their hands,” said one minister. “They just weren’t distancing.”
The tightly organized network of rooms inside his Downing Street residence — a 300 year-old London townhouse — made contagion hard to avoid. “No. 10 is like a rabbit warren, very narrow corridors and poky offices,” said Walden, who worked as an adviser to Johnson in government as well as in his time as London Mayor. “It’s no surprise they all came down with it.”
Yet it’s not clear that officials did enough to take their own advice. One Cabinet minister pointed out that some government departments moved far sooner than Johnson’s office to implement social distancing rules and enforce working from home. Some ministers based themselves at home a week or two before officials in Downing Street made the switch.
Asked whether the government could have done more to protect the prime minister, officials said the rules were being followed as they should. “We’re all trying our absolute best but none of us superhuman and impervious to getting sick,” Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said on Wednesday. “People are appropriately following all the guidance. That doesn’t mean we can completely eliminate the spread of infection.”
The first virtual Cabinet meeting — held using video-conferencing software — did not take place until March 31, five days after Johnson tested positive for the virus, and more than a week after he’d ordered the rest of the population to shut themselves away.
Officials in Johnson’s inner team completely failed to take the issue seriously enough, according to one Conservative. The Tory blames a macho culture and an attitude of denial — perhaps stemming from Johnson’s own approach to physical ill health — that meant the threat the virus posed to the man in charge was dismissed too breezily.
“Boris from an early age wanted to make himself invulnerable,” said Andrew Gimson, Johnson’s biographer. “Part of that was not taking illness seriously-showing that you were tough enough to work through any possible thing that you might get, and that you certainly didn’t need to be wimpish about it and go and lie down. I doubt there’s a single case of him telling someone ‘Look, you really must go home.’”
On March 26, Whitty advised Johnson to take a test. It diagnosed him with coronavirus. The next day, the prime minister began his life of isolation. In the days that followed, Johnson’s fiancée was away isolating herself, and nobody from his senior team was allowed into his private apartment next door in No. 11.
For a famously sociable man, the only contact with other people came in the form of video calls with his colleagues, as it did for many others across the country. Each morning, Johnson would dial in and chair the daily COVID-19 “war cabinet” meeting of top ministers and advisers.
Throughout his quarantine, Johnson kept working. He called international leaders, talked to his officials, reached out to opposition politicians, consulted with ministers and recorded his own videos for social media. All that was done while wading through the mountain of paperwork that builds up each day, urgent proposals for handling the crisis that needed the prime minister’s signature of approval.
“He has been working solidly while he’s had this-that’s probably the problem,” said one senior official. “The machine keeps rolling. Government has got a marvelous ability to produce paper.”
By the weekend it was clear Johnson was not doing well. Usually after a week, patients shrug off coronavirus, but Johnson’s symptoms would not go away. When he spoke to Keir Starmer on Saturday afternoon to congratulate him on his election as Labour Party leader and discuss the crisis, Johnson was evidently in a bad way, a witness said.
On Sunday morning, Johnson again chaired the daily meeting. Hours later his doctor told him to go to the hospital. Again, Whitty was on hand to urge Johnson to listen to the medical advice. “Boris would have been very frustrated to be sent to hospital,” said Walden. “In the past if he had a cold or a chesty cough he would have marched on through it.”
For three days, Johnson was wiped out. He couldn’t carry out any work. Apart, perhaps, from an occasional call, nobody spoke to the prime minister who was not in his medical team. He remained in intensive care for three nights, under the constant watch of doctors, wired up to heart monitors and an oxygen tank.
Back in Downing Street, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, was temporarily taking charge. As the designated “first secretary of state,” he was the most senior member of the Cabinet — a man who stood against Johnson last year for the leadership of the party. Yet such was the extent of the crisis gripping the government that it was not immediately clear how far Raab’s powers stretched.
Ministers and officials could not confidently say whether Raab had the power to order a nuclear strike, or if he could hire or fire members of the government. Dealing with an unprecedented peacetime emergency — with an economic as well as a public health crisis — seemed like the worst task possible for Britain’s leaderless government team.
One minister said it wouldn’t be a problem for the government to keep operating smoothly without Johnson in charge, at least in the short term. Members of the Cabinet all know what they are doing and there is no chance lockdown restrictions will be lifted soon. Yet another senior official was less optimistic.
The business of government was inevitably “more difficult” without the premier, the official said. “We are all trying to reflect what he would want.”
While Johnson is now out of intensive care, he remains in the hospital. It is not clear when he might return to work.
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