(Written by Stephen Castle and Mark Landler)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved into intensive care on Monday, a worrisome turn in his 10-day battle with the coronavirus and the starkest evidence yet of how the virus has threatened the British political establishment and thrown its new government into upheaval.
The government said that the decision was a precaution and that he had been in good spirits earlier in the day. But with Johnson’s aides releasing few details about his condition, the nation kept a tense vigil Monday night, hoping for the best and experiencing, together, the frightening mysteries of this disease.
In a sign of how grave the situation had become, No. 10 Downing St. said in a statement Monday that Johnson had asked the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, to deputize for him “where necessary.” The pound fell against the dollar after investors reacted to the news.
After noting earlier in the day that the prime minister was still getting official papers, Johnson’s aides said he had been moved to the intensive care unit in case he needed a ventilator to help his recovery. Not every patient in critical care is ventilated, medical experts said, but many are — or are at least given oxygen. The prime minister remains conscious, officials said.
For Johnson, 55, it was an especially cruel reversal. Just four months ago, he engineered the greatest Conservative Party victory since Margaret Thatcher in 1987, delivered his promise to take Britain out of the European Union, and set in motion an ambitious economic program to transform his divided country.
Now, Johnson, a political phenomenon whose career has always had a quicksilver quality, finds himself in a debilitating battle after contracting a virus he initially viewed with characteristic nonchalance.
For Britain, which had so recently emerged from 3 1/2 years of paralysis and polarization over Brexit, Johnson’s illness plunges the country back into the uncertainty Britons thought they had left behind.
When the prime minister announced March 27 that he had tested positive for the virus, he insisted he would remain firmly in charge of the government’s response to the virus, chairing the daily crisis meetings by video while self-isolating.
It had been an occasionally shaky performance until then: The government initially debated how aggressively it would try to curb the spread of the pathogen. That contributed to an inadequate, poorly organized testing program, and reinforced Johnson’s reluctance to impose a strict lockdown on his country.
In recent weeks, Johnson had seemed more in command. Britain has pledged to test 100,000 people a day by the end of this month. And the prime minister has become an ardent, if relentlessly cheerful, advocate of social distancing.
Even after Johnson had isolated himself in his apartment next door to No. 10 Downing St. he released a shaky, handheld video Friday, in which he warned people not to crowd parks during a sunny spring weekend.
Johnson’s aides predicted he would emerge from isolation that day. But he said he was running a temperature and suffering a cough. Two days later, he was admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital in central London, still suffering from those symptoms.
On Monday, Downing Street said in a statement, “Over the course of this afternoon, the condition of the Prime Minister has worsened and, on the advice of his medical team, he has been moved to the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital.”
Johnson’s hospitalization coincided with a call by Queen Elizabeth II for Britons to face the pandemic with the stoicism and self-discipline they showed during World War II. Her rare televised address reassured many, but barely an hour later, they were jolted by news of Johnson’s deteriorating condition.
On Monday, the government tried to put a good face on the situation. Raab told a news conference that Johnson was in good spirits after a comfortable night in the hospital, a short distance from Downing Street. He said Johnson remained “in charge” of the government and was working from his hospital bed.
But Raab, who chaired the daily coronavirus meeting Monday morning, admitted he had not spoken to the prime minister since Saturday. The paucity of details on the prime minister’s condition or any sign of ongoing communication between him and Raab deepened the unease.
Johnson wrote from the hospital on Twitter that he had undergone “some routine tests” because he was still experiencing symptoms. He also thanked health workers for taking care of him.
British politicians from across the political spectrum offered their best wishes, as did the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who said he hoped Johnson would make a swift recovery. Buckingham Palace said Downing Street had informed the queen of Johnson’s condition.
Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, said in a statement, “This is terrible news. I know the thoughts and prayers of everyone across the House are with the Prime Minister and his family right now.”
On Monday, at his daily briefing, President Donald Trump wished Johnson well. “Americans are all praying for him,” he said. “He’s been a really good friend.” The president suggested that American pharmaceutical companies could aid the prime minister by supplying therapeutic drugs, although there are not yet any proven treatments. He also said he and other senior officials would take more tests for the virus in light of Johnson’s ordeal.
Trump has had an affinity for Johnson, whom he views as a like-minded populist. While the two leaders have similarities — including their initially skeptical view of the threat posed by the virus — they are quite different. Johnson, for example, has described his approach to the virus as guided by science. In news conferences, he has typically deferred to his scientific and medical advisers — unlike Trump, who has constantly promoted an unproven anti-malaria drug as a potential treatment, going well beyond the advice of doctors and public health experts.
The prime minister first experienced the symptoms of the virus on March 26, was tested that day and received a positive result around midnight, going into self-isolation in Downing Street, but chairing meetings by videolink.
Johnson’s 32-year-old partner, Carrie Symonds, who is pregnant, disclosed on Saturday that she, too, had experienced symptoms.
On Monday, Raab said that it was too early to discuss an exit strategy from Britain’s lockdown, arguing that the focus should remain on social distancing measures designed to curb the spread of the virus.
According to statistics released Monday, more than 51,000 people had tested positive for the virus in Britain and 5,373 people had died, though there was some cause for optimism from figures that showed the rate of hospital admissions slowing.
Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?
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