LONDON—The British prime minister Boris Johnson was admitted to intensive care Monday in a shock development that followed days of Downing Street playing down the severity of his illness.
Fewer than 24 hours after the queen reassured the nation that Britain would overcome the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s leader was taken into the ICU.
It’s the first time in more than a half a century that a British prime minister has been incapacitated while in office. Downing Street tried to keep up the appearance that Johnson was well enough to lead the country over the last 24 hours, but it has become increasingly clear that the 55-year-old is seriously ill.
Reports emerged in the media over the weekend that Johnson was suffering quite severely, coughing and spluttering during cabinet Zoom meetings, but officials continued to insist that he was only feeling mild symptoms.
That changed dramatically Monday evening London time when No.10 was forced to admit that the prime minister’s “routine” stay in the hospital had now progressed to the intensive care ward when Johnson’s persistent coronavirus symptoms had significantly deteriorated.
“Since Sunday evening, the prime minister has been under the care of doctors at St Thomas’ Hospital, in London, after being admitted with persistent symptoms of coronavirus,” a Downing Street statement read.
“Over the course of this afternoon, the condition of the prime minister has worsened and, on the advice of his medical team, he has been moved to the intensive care unit at the hospital.”
The British prime minister became the first major world leader to catch the coronavirus and confirmed his positive test for the disease on March 27. On Sunday night, Downing Street said Johnson had been taken to a London hospital after his symptoms worsened and it was reported, though not officially confirmed, that he had been given oxygen treatment on arrival. Officials maintained that he was only undergoing routine tests despite staying overnight.
Britain has no formal vice-prime ministerial role and there is no constitutional process to ensure a temporary successor assumes the powers of the state in the event that the prime minister is unable to continue his duties. Since 1953, when Winston Churchill reportedly suffered a stroke, there has been no need to call on a deputy.
BBC News reported that Johnson personally asked Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, to take over before he was moved into the ICU. Although Johnson had officially maintained authority until Monday night, he had already handed off many of his duties.
Raab is a divisive figure who came up on the right of the party and was rewarded for his hardline stance on Brexit by being promoted to foreign secretary last summer at the age of 45. He has already taken control of the regular COBRA meetings to oversee Britain’s handling of the crisis.
Speaking to reporters late Monday night, Raab said: “The prime minister is in safe hands ... and the focus of the government will continue to be on making sure that the prime minister's direction, all the plans for making sure that we can defeat coronavirus and can pull the country through this challenge, will be taken forward.”
The prime minister was reported to be conscious and the move to ICU came when doctors decided he could potentially require the use of a ventilator.
While Johnson is not known to have any serious underlying health conditions, he has struggled with his weight throughout his political career. In December 2018, he said he was 16 and a half stone, which, at 5ft 9in, would have made him obese—a known coronavirus risk factor. However, he lost a noticeable amount of weight during his campaign to become leader of the Conservative party and prime minister in June last year.
Johnson’s pregnant fiancee, Carrie Symonds, revealed on Saturday that she was in recovery after becoming bedridden from coronavirus symptoms—though she hasn’t been tested for the disease. The couple are expecting their first baby together in the early summer.
Hours before his move into the ICU was confirmed, Johnson tweeted to say he was in “good spirits” and thanked the National Health Service staff who were looking after him and other people suffering from the coronavirus throughout the country.
The United Kingdom has reported over 52,000 cases of the coronavirus, and over 5,300 people in the country have died.