Boris Johnson and the ravages of office

Published by UnHerd (13th May, 2020)

The Government’s bid to soften lockdown was a communications disaster. The latest slogan makes little sense compared with the ‘Stay at Home’ lucidity of its predecessor. We were told new rules came into play on Monday, then Wednesday. There was confusion as to whether they would apply in Scotland and Wales. Even Dominic Raab, the Prime Minister’s deputy, got in a pickle when sent out to explain the new strategy, erroneously telling radio listeners they could meet both parents in a park.

This muddle was summed up by the comedian Matt Lucas  in a vicious parody of Boris Johnson that quickly went viral. ‘So, we are saying don’t go to work, go to work, don’t take public transport, go to work, don’t go to work. Stay indoors, if you can work from home go to work, don’t go to work. Go outside, don’t go outside. And then we will, or won’t, something or other.’

This shambles is a shame, regardless of your political persuasion, since the pandemic confronts our country with such a profound crisis. We need as much clarity as possible in the search for a path back towards something approaching normality. Yet it is odd that such an effective team of campaigners, who pulled off Brexit and a big election victory against the odds, managed to create such a public relations calamity.

It is hard not to wonder whether the virus itself is to blame. Certainly Johnson was hit badly, admitting doctors had to give him ‘litres and litres’ of oxygen and that he was close to being put on a ventilator. He looked exhausted after returning to Downing Street and is, unsuprisingly, working fewer hours. It is said he gets fatigued, sometimes struggling with memory.

Three other central members of the political team at core of this crisis have also been infected. Dominic Cummings, the key Downing Street adviser, collapsed and was in bed for 10 days. ‘…he lay doggo with a high fever and spasms that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs,’ wrote his wife, Mary Wakefield, deputy editor of The Spectator. ‘He could breathe, but only in a limited, shallow way.’ The health secretary Matt Hancock was also struck, although it seems much less seriously. Now we have learned Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and civil service chief, also caught the disease.

They deserve sympathy on a human level. ‘If you’ve suffered from it like Boris and Dom have, there is a personal fear of this disease,’ one aide told The Sunday Times, adding that both men still felt ‘rough’ at times. Yet at the same time it is fair to ask an uncomfortable question: is there any lingering impact on the critical quartet working out how to tackle this new coronavirus — especially when the decisions of the Prime Minister, who has had such a bad experience of it, have such massive consequences for both his citizens and his country?

I do not think that Boris Johnson and his team have handled this catastrophe remotely well, but I do feel some pity on a human level for the epic scale of the decisions that they must make. These people, lacking scientific expertise and under relentless public gaze, must weigh up hideous complexities about lives and jobs based on limited knowledge about a mysterious new disease. They may have spent much of their lives focused on power. But it was still no surprise to learn the Prime Minister was suffering sleepless nights before he caught the virus.

We are now discovering that this disease has long-term complications. Primary symptoms such as a cough and fever can last longer than first believed while more serious issues such as fatigue, heart problems and lung damage can endure for months. Professor Nicholas Hart, the respiratory doctor who treated Johnson, has warned coronavirus could end up becoming ‘this generation’s polio’ and lead to debilitating problems for many months or even years. ‘Large numbers of patients will have physical, cognitive and psychological disability post critical illness that will require long-term management,’ he said.

Other experts have expressed fears about long-term consequences for patients. ‘There is, particularly for patients in intensive care, a perfect storm of potential damage to the body and the brain,’ said Carmine Pariante, professor of biological psychiatry at King’s College London. Those struck down themselves by the virus have talked of the serious impact. Paul Garner, a professor in tropical medicine, told the Mail on Sunday how the symptoms lasted seven weeks, during which time he endured ‘a rollercoaster of ill health, extreme emotions and utter exhaustion’.

Peter Piot, the virologist who discovered ebola, also said it took seven weeks after leaving hospital to feel ‘more or less in shape for the first time’. He spoke about his fear of being placed on a ventilator as oxygen was pumped into his body through a face mask. ‘I have devoted my life to fighting viruses and finally, they get their revenge. For a week I balanced between heaven and Earth, on the edge of what could have been the end,’ he told a Belgian magazine. Afterwards he could not walk properly because his muscles were so weakened. ‘At home, I cried for a long time. I also slept badly for a while. The risk that something could still go seriously wrong keeps going through your head.’

Just imagine that you were in such a state — and then in a matter of weeks have to weigh up when it is safe for your country to let businesses re-open and leisure activities return amid an unprecedented pandemic (not to mention having a new baby as well). Johnson has never been renowned as a hard worker, but he could be decisive. Having survived this disease, he must now balance fiercely-competing voices in his cabinet while taking decisions of enormous economic, medical, political and social consequences. Meanwhile, concern grows in his country and party. To make matters worse, he drove out many of the smartest minds from his cabinet during the Brexit fallout and replaced them with inexperienced loyalists.

Amid the pressure of modern politics, intensified many times over by this pandemic, it is easy to forget these decisions rest on the shoulders of ordinary human beings. David Cameron said that he returned too soon to work after the death of his son Ivan in 2009, back under the microscope as opposition leader while still struggling with deep grief. ‘When I look back, I realise that I started working again too quickly,’ he wrote in his biography. ‘For a while, I was too fragile and not in the right state of mind to make decisions. Nothing seemed to matter alongside what we had lost.’

We also know personal health has an impact on politics. David Owen, the former foreign secretary who trained as a doctor at St Thomas’s hospital, wrote an entire book on the subject. Lloyd George suffered badly in the 1918 flu pandemic, which was hushed up at the time, while Sir Winston Churchill famously suffered a stroke in 1953 that was also kept quiet from voters. Historians have discussed how much Anthony Eden’s pain and medication after surgery contributed to the foolish Suez invasion. Owen pointed out this decision was taken 10 days after he left hospital following treatment for septicaemia when sleeping badly and pumped full of drugs

It does not follow that sickness inevitably leads to political disasters. Michael Gove wrote more than a decade ago in The Times that ‘the two greatest European leaders of the 19th century, Bismarck and Salisbury, were fragile bundles of ill-health’. He also pointed out that Churchill was a depressive ‘whose melancholia manifested itself in physical weakness and debility’. Yet Johnson is confronting a very different kind of conflict from his hero and predecessor. And he was caught personally by this silent enemy that exploded out of China.

Like it or not, the personal is political. Ideology is important, but politicians are driven also by ambition, influenced by identity and shaped by experience.  We do not yet know if, as speculated, Johnson’s gung-ho approach and brash scepticism over the nanny state has been tempered by that terrifying time in intensive care. But we do know this can be a very cruel virus. The health of the country, meanwhile, remains in a critical state.

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