Boris Johnson’s illness is a message to us all about the horror of coronavirus | Martin Kettle | Opinion

Boris Johnson’s move last night into intensive care in London’s St Thomas’ hospital marks a turning point in Britain’s national Covid-19 crisis. On one level it is just one more personal crisis for another of the more than 1.3 million human victims of the virus around the world. But on another level it is much more than that, and its full significance for Britain has not yet been properly understood.

The incapacity of any prime minister at any time always throws a government machine into confusion. That’s no different in the case of Johnson’s sickness than in the many previous cases in British history in which other prime ministers have been afflicted by illness or the need for surgery. But the machine will adapt. It’s what government machines do.

What is different this time, and much more important, is the wider potential resonance across the country of Johnson’s worsening condition and his hospitalisation. The prime minister has been struck down by something that threatens every person in the land directly every day. Most of us are dutifully following the lockdown advice in our hidden away anonymity to defy it. Only a minority of us have caught the coronavirus. Many of us know no one in our close circle who has had to go to hospital because of it.

But we all know Johnson. We all know what and who he is. Even my three-year-old granddaughter knows that it is Boris Johnson who has said she can’t go outside. Johnson’s medical crisis is not just his own. It speaks more widely to the nation. It conveys an unexpected, brutal and disturbing message. Whether we voted for him or not, Johnson is this country’s elected leader. He’s in charge. In a crisis, the buck stops with him. But in this crisis, our prime minister is receiving oxygen in an intensive care unit and is not in a fit state to govern.

The words “Boris Johnson” and “seriousness” are not often encountered together. He has spent much of his life breaking rules and behaving self-indulgently. But his hospitalisation overleaps all that. I suspect it also takes this country into a more serious place than it has previously reached in the battle with Covid-19. The thought of a prone Johnson surrounded by the doctors, nurses and equipment that were so powerfully glimpsed in the intensive care department of another London hospital on Monday night’s BBC news bulletins will come as a shock to supporters and opponents of the prime minister alike. Millions will have discovered a deep well of compassion towards Johnson that they never suspected they could possess.

The leader who is struck down amid the fight for survival is a potent archetype in art and literature. The wounded chieftain is a deep point of reference in the history of many cultures of every tradition, and in every part of these islands from at least Arthurian times onwards. Johnson may never acquire the legendary status of an Arthur, but the shock of the news of his hospitalisation reaches out nevertheless into every corner of the country.

There will, glumly, be some who respond to Johnson’s distress without compassion of any kind. Some will simply not care. For most, though, the effect is likely to be more sobering and stiffening. Nothing that has yet happened in this outbreak brings home more clearly that we are in a collective struggle. Nothing is more likely to supply a voice in people’s heads when they ask themselves whether they should stick to the state’s advice to self-isolate and maintain distance from others. Nothing is more likely to nudge our behaviour in a more responsible and sensibly cautious direction.

Boris Johnson’s political career has often been divisive. But his vulnerability to the virus and his current distress tell a different and ultimately more important story. We are living through a time when the shadow of death is passing across the land more fatefully than normal. Perhaps the most improbable thing in Johnson’s life is that in this dark hour he has surprised us into the need to be serious.

Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist

Source link