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Is the UK adrift now that Boris Johnson is in hospital?

  • 7 Apr 2020

The coronavirus has put Britain’s most senior politician in intensive care, now the people need to trust that the state can still run without him.

The front door of 10 Downing Street is pictured in London on April 6, after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent the night in hospital. ( AFP )

As Britain faces its most serious crisis in decades, the country’s larger than life Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been taken into intensive care following his worsening condition as he fights the coronavirus.

The 55-year-old Johnson does not have pre-existing health conditions, however, the prime minister has in the past said that he has struggled with obesity weighing in at more than 100kg, a known risk factor for coronavirus.

A recent report in the UK said that more than 70 percent of coronavirus patients were either obese or clinically obese.

Britain is expected to enter the peak of the outbreak over the next two weeks and now the country could also be heading into a leadership crisis.

Since testing positive for the virus on March 26, Johnson, who once boasted that he had shaken hands with known coronavirus patients, has attempted to run his government via video conference calls.

Up until last week, the British prime minister was suggesting in a shaky video message that he still had “minor symptoms” but was unable to shake the fever.

At least one of his ministers has suggested that Johnson can run the country from his hospital bed.

Yet that now seems optimistic with Johnson delegating authority to his foreign secretary and formerly leadership rival Dominic Raab.

Worryingly for Johnson is that other senior ministers in his cabinet, like the health secretary and cabinet office minister also stood against him for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

An incapacitated leadership at a moment of national crisis may well lead to a replacement in premiership just as the country partly emerged from a bitter three-year Brexit debate, multiple elections and incapacitated governance.

British political decision making, in part because of Johnson’s sickness, was until recently operating via Zoom conference calls.

More broadly compounding the woes of the Conservative government is the policy of U-turns and mixed messages that have been delivered by politicians.

Johnson’s admission into intensive care is also a rebuke to the government’s early proposal of herd immunity which carried with it an implicit understanding that some people would have to die.

The government only backed off from the idea of allowing the disease to run rampant after an analysis showed that deaths could climb as high as 250,000 people and the nation’s health service would be stretched beyond capacity.

While many other countries applied social distancing rules early, the UK government was still unsure which policy measures it would take. It wasn’t until the middle of March that the government backtracked and imposed new rules on managing the crises.

Like the Trump administration in the US, Johnson’s government was accused of being slow to get a grip on the crisis.

Now the UK has more than 50,000 infections and 5,300 deaths and the government hopes that by the end of April it will be able to do more than 100,000 tests per day.

However, Johnson’s government has come under criticism not only for not doing enough daily tests as well as failing to offer the resources necessary for frontline staff in hospitals to be tested.

During the Brexit debate, one of the prime minister’s current lieutenants suggested that the British public have had enough of experts. Now the same ministers are re-discovering the importance of experts as they seek to grapple with the viral outbreak sweeping the country.

Queen Elizabeth II recently evoked the country's national resolve through a rare speech in a bid to provide national unity. The address was received as an attempt to imbue confidence in the public.

Over the coming days and weeks, Boris Johnson’s health will be as much a news story as the virus itself and also an indicator that without taking the pandemic seriously everyone is at risk.

The British state is also being tested as ministers operate from different parts of the country, many avoiding all contact while attempting to run their departments remotely while the public hopes that their elected officials can still manage to guide them out of this situation.

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