Michael Gove spoke for many in Westminster and beyond when he expressed his shock at Boris Johnson’s move into intensive care. “All of us are discovering that this virus has a malignity and a malevolence that is truly frightening,” the Cabinet Office minister said on Tuesday.
The worsening of the UK prime minister’s condition took ministers, officials and allies by surprise. Although he had been in self-isolation for 11 days, he continued to work from his flat in Number 11 Downing Street — including several selfie videos and two public appearances on the street outside to clap in support of the National Health Service.
Very few were aware that his coronavirus symptoms were developing beyond the “mild” description set out by Number 10. Although allies said his workload had been scaled back over the last week, Mr Johnson continued working on Saturday.
But on Sunday, the prime minister’s condition changed. Government insiders said they were “taken aback by the speed” of how the prime minister’s illness developed over the weekend before he was admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
While the government, now temporarily led by foreign secretary Dominic Raab, is continuing to see through its usual functions, officials remain deeply worried about Mr Johnson’s health: one described it as an “awful time”, another said “there is real shock across the whole of government”.
One Whitehall insider noted that Mr Johnson’s admission to intensive care had been precautionary. “He’s the prime minister so everyone is naturally taking extra care. He’s receiving the best treatment in the world from our NHS but everyone is doing the absolute best to help him.”
Another senior figure in the government said that his illness had shocked the country and reminded Britons the virus does not discriminate. “Coronavirus can hit anyone and hit people in different ways. Everyone has a friend or family member who has been taken ill. The prime minister is another example and a stark reminder that everyone must follow our guidance,” the aide said.
As Mr Johnson’s colleagues and officials continued to implement his strategy and plans for dealing with the coronavirus crisis, warm messages of support and some of help flooded in from across British politics and beyond.
Theresa May, his immediate predecessor in Downing Street, offered her “thoughts and prayers” to Mr Johnson and said he was in the “best possible hands” of the NHS. She added that his illness showed that these are not normal times.
“These are very particular circumstances that we’re living through at the moment. This is a set of circumstances that government hasn’t had to deal with before. And this is occurring across the world; we are not alone in this.”
David Cameron, another former prime minister, friend and sometimes political rival of Mr Johnson, said he was “an incredibly tough and resilient guy” and was hopeful of a swift recovery. “He’s also pretty fit: I’ve faced him on a tennis court. I am sure he will pull through this and he’ll be fine. But it’s obviously a worrying time and we’re all thinking of him.”
Keir Starmer, the new Labour party leader, described the prime minister’s condition as “terribly sad news”. He tweeted “all the country’s thoughts are with the prime minister and his family during this incredibly difficult time.”
US president Donald Trump offered help of medicine and doctors while sending his best wishes. “Americans are all praying for his recovery — he’s been a really good friend and something very special: strong, resolute, doesn’t quit, doesn’t give up.”
The sentiment was mirrored by Mr Raab, who is deputising for Mr Johnson while he is in hospital, who described the prime minister as a “fighter”.
“He’s not just the prime minister, for all of us in Cabinet, he’s not just our boss, he’s also a colleague and he’s also our friend,” Mr Raab said. “I’m confident he will pull through.”