Dispatch

Boris Johnson Placed in Intensive Care After Coronavirus Symptoms Worsen

The British prime minister has asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to be deputized “where necessary,” Downing Street says.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves No. 10 Downing Street in London on March 25.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves No. 10 Downing Street in London on March 25. Peter Summers/Getty Images

LONDON—British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was placed in intensive care Monday night with complications from the coronavirus, effectively handing over control of the British government to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Johnson, who had been suffering from a persistent fever for 10 days since being diagnosed with COVID-19, was first hospitalized Sunday night and in recent conference calls had been “coughing and sounding pretty rough,” according to one senior civil servant who normally meets with him on a daily basis.

The 55-year-old Johnson at first insisted on Twitter that he was undergoing “routine tests” and was still in touch with his team—while aides said the traditional scarlet dispatch boxes were being brought to the prime minister’s bedside. But Johnson’s condition deteriorated on Monday afternoon, and he was moved to the intensive care unit as a precaution in case he needed ventilation, according to a spokesperson.

Johnson’s hospitalization came just over four weeks after the prime minister was still shaking hands, insisting that the “crucial thing” to keep the coronavirus at bay was frequent hand-washing. As late as March 12, Johnson continued to claim that preventing mass gatherings was not an effective way to tackle the coronavirus—before reversing his policy four days later and effectively canceling all sport and other events. A nationwide lockdown was announced on March 23, and on March 27 Johnson announced that he had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The timing of Johnson’s serious illness could hardly have been worse. The coming week has been billed by U.K. government medical officers as the likely moment that the COVID-19 death toll will peak. According to Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, based on modeling of the virus’s death toll in Italy and Spain, Britain’s fatalities are expected to “plateau” around April 11—though in reality the day brought some reassuring news, with a 30 percent day-on-day nationwide fall in deaths to 433.

During the first 10 days of his illness, Johnson “was working like mad even while he was ill,” the senior civil servant told Foreign Policy. “People were trying to get him to take it easy.” Johnson refused with characteristic brio—or what his critics might call arrogance. During his self-isolation in his official apartment at No. 11 Downing Street, Johnson has been chairing regular meetings, including of the cabinet, via the Zoom internet videoconferencing platform. He had also been “tackling the usual mountain of paperwork,” said the Downing Street official. Even during his first hours in the hospital, Johnson was “still doing his best to stay on top of everything,” according to the source.

That punishing work schedule came to an abrupt end when Johnson’s condition deteriorated Monday—though Downing Street officials told journalists that the prime minister was still conscious and the move to the ICU was “precautionary.”

Just hours before Johnson was admitted to intensive care, his spokesperson denounced a report by the Russian state-run RIA Novosti news agency claiming that Johnson was “rushed to hospital [for] treatment with an artificial lung” as “disinformation.” However, Downing Street also appears to have consistently downplayed the seriousness of Johnson’s condition, describing his symptoms when he was hospitalized as a “persistent … temperature and a cough.” Johnson himself, less than 24 hours before being admitted to the ICU, tweeted that he was “in good spirits and keeping in touch with my team, as we work together to fight this virus and keep everyone safe.”

Raab has been officially deputized to run the country until the prime minister’s recovery. But the coronavirus has cut a swath through the senior levels of the British government. Johnson’s closest aide, Dominic Cummings, is self-isolating at home after developing symptoms of the virus. At least three members of the cabinet—Whitty, Britain’s chief medical officer; Health Secretary Matt Hancock; and Health Minister Nadine Dorries—have been diagnosed with the virus and have all recovered and are back at work. Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, who is pregnant, also announced on Twitter over the weekend that she had been suffering from the coronavirus, although she is now “on the mend.” Symonds has been self-isolating in her apartment in Camberwell, London, with the couple’s dog, Dilyn.

Raab, appearing on the BBC shortly after the announcement that he had effectively become Britain’s interim prime minister, was quick to reassure the public that there was an “incredibly strong team spirit” in Johnson’s cabinet and that ministers will focus on delivering the plans he put in place. Senior Conservative Party leaders also lined up to express confidence in Raab’s leadership. “In terms of the government, we shouldn’t have any concerns at all,” former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, a close friend and ally of Johnson’s, told the BBC. “It has been known for some considerable time that the prime minister appointed Dominic Raab as first secretary. He is more than capable of fulfilling this role, and he has great experience in government. And he would have been brought up to speed on all the key processes that go around the prime minister since he became ill because they would have been planning for this and just in case this happened.”

Despite the assurances, the British pound dropped sharply against the U.S. dollar after the news of Johnson’s ICU admission broke, down 0.3 percent against the dollar and down 0.1 percent against the euro.

At the same time, according to the Downing Street official, the government has accomplished “some things which we can be pretty proud of … things that would be inconceivable in normal times.” One such achievement is the completion of the emergency Nightingale Hospital, a 4,000-bed intensive care facility located in the vast ExCeL conference center in East London, which was opened via video link by Prince Charles on Friday, soon after his own recovery from the coronavirus. Further emergency ICU facilities of between 300 and 1,000 beds each are near completion in Manchester, Bristol, Harrogate, and Glasgow. Hancock, the health secretary, has also staked his political career on ramping up the number of daily COVID-19 tests available to 100,000 a day by the end of the month. At current levels of infection and fatality, Britain’s ICU capacity appears on track to meet the coronavirus spike in admissions.

“Obviously, the government of the day catches all possible flak—you’re always to blame, by definition,” the senior official said. “But if you look at how things have actually been done, it’s pretty incredible.” Johnson’s government was able to speed up testing capacity, for instance, by effectively overruling the operational independence of the National Health Service after NHS officials blocked private medical labs from taking on testing work. Johnson and Hancock overruled the NHS leadership and allowed private contractors to participate in a nationwide effort to produce and process COVID-19 tests. A massive raft of economic bailout measures announced by Britain’s top finance official, Rishi Sunak—including a blanket promise to pay 80 percent of wages to all workers laid off or furloughed due to the crisis—was also an example of the “government working in wholly extraordinary ways” in response to the crisis, the official said.

In the hospital with acute coronavirus on the eve of a predicted surge in hospitalizations, Johnson has unwittingly become a one-man bellwether for the effectiveness of his government’s response to the virus.

April 7: This story has been updated.

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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