‘I owe them my life’: how Boris Johnson’s illness shook him, and the nation | Focus

“I can’t thank them enough, I owe them my life,” said Boris Johnson.

His short statement, issued on Saturday night, paying tribute to NHS staff, followed a nerve-racking few days when he was rushed to hospital, later admitted to intensive care, given oxygen, before being released back on to the ward to begin his slow recovery.

In the early days of Johnson’s infection with the coronavirus, when he was self-isolating in his flat above 11 Downing Street, every effort was made to play down the gravity of his condition.

This, no doubt, was the way Johnson wanted it. Friends and others who have known him for many years are well aware that he had always – and certainly in his younger days – been rather dismissive of the idea of getting ill.

The former Tory MP and journalist Paul Goodman, who worked with him at the Daily Telegraph, recalls this tendency: “I remember he always seemed to regard being ill as a form of moral weakness. It baffled him.”

So the early messages about Johnson’s solitary confinement were typically defiant. The symptoms, we were told, were mild – something of an irritant but no more. And they certainly would not prevent the prime minister from continuing to run the country and lead it, Churchill style, out of our grave national crisis and well beyond.

Even then, however, there was understandable concern for the PM’s health. Despite all the bravado and Johnson’s “keep buggering on” spirit, the 55-year-old had been placed on a significantly reduced workload in an attempt to aid his recovery.

Incoming phone calls were strictly limited and paperwork drastically reduced. The PM managed to record almost daily videos of himself on his phone – pale, hair even more ruffled than usual, urging his people on – but they betrayed a certain desperation. Only his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds and director of communications Lee Cain were in contact with the PM, apart from the daily consultations he held with his doctor.

After more than a week in which the mood in the rest of No 10 was quiet and sombre, with many other staff off sick, there had been no improvement in Johnson’s condition. While the health secretary Matt Hancock, who at 41 is 14 years younger than Johnson, was recovering fast, having fallen ill at around the same time, his boss was still not on the mend.

Boris Johnson chairing a coronavirus meeting by videolink on 28 March while he was in isolation.

Boris Johnson chairing a coronavirus meeting by videolink on 28 March, while he was in isolation. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/AFP

By 2 April it had been agreed that the PM’s condition and workload would be reviewed that coming weekend. Johnson chaired last Saturday morning’s coronavirus meetingwith senior ministers, medical advisers and officials and, as ever, the word afterwards was that he had been “in good spirits”. But clearly it was becoming more and more of a struggle.

After the meeting the PM’s diary was completely cleared and that evening his pregnant partner Carrie Symonds tweeted that she too was suffering from symptoms and was also going to self-isolate.

The worrying news mounted day after day. At just before 8pm on Sunday, on the advice of his doctor, Johnson was driven in a government car a few hundred metres from Downing Street to be admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital.

Again, his team tried to play down the significance of the moment, saying his admission was “precautionary”. But the PM could no longer pretend to be Winston Churchill. He called Dominic Raab, foreign secretary and first secretary of state, and asked him to chair the main government meeting on coronavirus the next morning and stand in for him on other duties.

Then last Monday evening his condition worsened on the ward, and he was transferred to intensive care. The Queen was informed and the news was made public.

Charles Walker, a Tory MP who knows Johnson well, said that when he received a text on his phone relaying the news, he and his wife – like much of the country – found it hard to take. “We had watched the Queen on Sunday night, one of the anchors in our lives. She took us back to the moment in her reign when she broadcast during the war with her sister. Then to suddenly hear that our prime minister had been taken into intensive care … in my 52 years I really have to say I think it was the darkest hour. We had lots of friends and family contracting the virus, and had news of so many people dying, then you think, ‘my God, we could lose him as well’.”

Dominic Raab leaves Downing Street on 9 April with the prime minister in hospital.

Dominic Raab leaves Downing Street on 9 April with the prime minister in hospital. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

That night people across the country, from all walks of life, reported having sleepless nights. Like Johnson or loathe him, the feeling of shock was the same.

Those of us who have known and watched this man for decades – and seen him not only survive but climb the greasy pole despite endless personal and political mishaps and scandals – also felt the same mix of shock, sympathy and disbelief. How could it be that Johnson of all people was suddenly in danger of losing his life?

Goodman recalled absurd images of Johnson suspended over London on a zipwire in 2012 and said that, however divisive he might be, he was “a life force”.

“He is literally larger than life so when you hear he is dangerously ill it feels like a blow to life itself.”

Baroness Morgan, a former member of Johnson’s cabinet, said she was bombarded with messages and texts from people who were not necessarily supporters of Johnson or the Tories. “People just seemed to need an outlet and, like all of us, were thinking ‘my God I can’t believe this has happened’.”

She struggled to sleep that night, wondering where this would all end. “When I woke up – and I think this was the case with lots of people – I just thought ‘oh no, what am I going to read now?’ Thankfully the news wasn’t any worse, but after what had happened you just didn’t know.”

Even Johnson’s fiercest critics were swept up by the national mood of sympathy. A former colleague from Johnson’s days as a Brussels journalist said: “I regard Boris – who was a friend – as a liar and charlatan for the way he has behaved, including over Brexit. But when I heard he was in intensive care I just felt this extraordinary wave of sympathy for him.”

Boris Johnson posted this image on Twitter on 7 April.

Boris Johnson posted this image on Twitter on 7 April. Photograph: @BorisJohnson/PA

By Thursday there were tentative signs of improvement. Johnson had not had to be put on a ventilator at any stage. He had been stable for two days and was now “improving”. A member of the No 10 staff reported a change of mood. “There is this cautious sense that it may be OK now. And people are returning to work. Dominic Raab’s people are around more. There is more activity about the place. Let’s just hope.”

By the evening the news came that the prime minister had been moved out of intensive care and back on to the ward. There was relief in all quarters, but also warnings. His biographer Andrew Gimson said some, at least, of Johnson’s views of himself and the vulnerability of others will have to change.

“Boris never used to believe in illness. He neither admitted to sickness himself, nor noticed it in others. He believed he was strong enough to keep going regardless of any symptoms from which he might be suffering. His strong inclination was to overwork, not to put his feet up. In the light of his experiences one hopes he will change his outlook.”

His father Stanley Johnson also said his son’s cavalier attitude had almost done for him. “To use that American expression, he almost took one for the team. We have got to make sure we play the game properly now,” he said.

While insisting that his son was not “out of the woods” yet, he was adamant that he must not try to play the heroic figure again during recuperation. “He has to take time. I cannot believe you can walk away from this and get straight back to Downing Street and pick up the reins without a period of readjustment.” Yesterday the PM was reported to be relaxing on the ward by watching the films Withnail and I and Lord of the Rings.

The former Tory MP Anna Soubry said she too was delighted to hear Johnson was on the mend. But it was equally important, she said, that he learn from his experiences and become a better and more sensitive leader. “I am so pleased he seems to be on the mend. But all this Churchillian stuff has to stop now. He has to show that he has been humbled by this and realises that this illness does not discriminate between princes and paupers.”

She hopes he will change in other ways too, renewing his enthusiasm for immigration, which he voiced often during his time as mayor of London. And although he had expressed his gratitude to the NHS staff who had treated him, she added, “I hope he thinks about the fact that many of the faces of the people he will have seen treating him so brilliantly in intensive care and on the ward, and who helped nurse him, were immigrant and non-white faces – many. I hope he thinks about that.”

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