As Boris Johnson went into solitary confinement in his flat above No 11 Downing Street on Friday, having tested positive for Covid-19, a member of his staff noted how the atmosphere had quickly changed at the heart of power. It was not just the PM who had taken himself out of circulation in the preceding hours. “There are quite a lot of others not here now because they are self-isolating,” said the official. “Those who are, are just getting on with their jobs. The whole place has become very quiet.”
Downing Street is a huge rambling complex of corridors and offices in which staff can, in normal times, move fairly freely, running errands and attending meetings in small rooms in No 10, No 11 and the Cabinet Office. Until Thursday, the place had buzzed with activity, day and night. Many members of staff were exhausted, working 18-hour days, or more, at what had for weeks been the national nerve centre for coordinating responses to the pandemic. Some were sleeping in the building to avoid the risks of public transport and to save time.
Senior ministers including Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, were regularly in and out of formal meetings and more impromptu discussions with the PM, as were Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser to the government, and Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer. Until the middle of last week, meetings of Cobra, the emergency committee, were still taking place, mainly person to person, rather than remotely. But when Johnson tested positive, having developed a cough and temperature during Thursday afternoon – and it was later announced that Hancock had contracted the virus, too – such gatherings, and the free movement of people inside Downing Street, were halted.
At lunchtime on Friday, Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, appeared to have recognised the urgency of the situation and was seen running out of the building by a back exit with a large rucksack on his back. A decision was taken to close and lock the door between Nos 10 and 11. Johnson’s solitary confinement meant food, drink and papers had to be left outside his door. Hancock stayed at home. Then, on Saturday, the secretary of state for Scotland, Alister Jack, announced that he was self-isolating after developing coronavirus symptoms. He had yet to be tested.
For Downing Street staff who were still at work keeping the machine going, new routes had to be taken. “Now, we have to go via an underground passage if we want to get to another part of the building,” said an insider. After days of telling the public where they could and could not go, staff at the heart of government were having to fall into line, too.
Dominic Cummings runs out of Downing Street shortly after Johnson announced he tested positive for Covid-19. Photograph: ITV News
The news that Johnson and Hancock had contracted Covid-19 – and, later on Friday, that Whitty had developed symptoms – raised two urgent new questions to add to the long list already facing ministers. Most immediately: how was it that three of the four-strong team of politicians and medical experts leading the national appeals to people to stay at home and observe social distancing had allowed themselves to fall victim to the virus? And how could government at this time of national emergency continue to function if Covid-19 took many more victims in high places in Westminster, Whitehall and Downing Street?
Johnson had certainly not practised what he had preached. As well as attending Cobra meetings in person, with key ministers and the country’s leading medical experts, he had been pictured in the Commons on Wednesday, after prime minister’s questions, in a close cluster around the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. On Friday, Hoyle felt he had to issue a statement saying he was fit and well, given Johnson that had just tested positive. On Wednesday too, the prime minister posed for pictures standing alongside the Labour MP Rupa Huq and her son. The London MP writes an article for Sunday’s Observer on the failure of parliament to adapt to safer working practices during the outbreak.
Fellow Labour MP Lucy Powell said the whole of government should have decided to operate remotely far earlier: “It is extraordinary that we did not take measures to close parliament earlier than we did. Westminster and Whitehall have not set a good example to the country, which may be why people have been slow to act on the advice. There are high numbers of MPs who have already had the virus or have got it now. Nadine Dorries had it two weeks ago. So parliament could, and should, have moved to working via Zoom instead of gathering in an epicentre and then disbursing round the country.”
By and large, the public is still supportive of the government’s actions and responses, aware of the complexity and enormity of the crisis, and the unprecedented nature of the challenge. An Opinium survey for the Observer taken in the latter half of last week, but before news of Johnson’s illness broke, shows 65% of voters approve of the handling of the coronavirus outbreak. But 56% think government did not move fast enough on a number of fronts, including testing and social distancing. As the number of cases of and deaths from coronavirus grows, questions about the adequacy and speed of the response will only grow. Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s health spokesperson, who has offered support to the government where possible, said the most criticisms came from within the medical establishment so could not be dismissed as mere political point scoring.
“A pandemic demands resolve and rapid action from governments. In recent weeks, there have been more and more voices in the wider medical community questioning whether the UK was moving at the speed necessary. NHS staff have continued to warn of delays in accessing protective equipment, we still have not got the ventilators that will be vital, we are not testing at the levels the World Health Organization recommends and many believe social-distancing measures should have been implemented earlier.”
Inevitably at such a time, there have been tensions at the heart of government, notably between Hancock and Gove, over the handling of the crisis and signs of a lack of central control. Whitehall insiders say there is concern that No 10 has not been clear to other departments what their roles should be. There is also dismay that Downing Street has leaked out initiatives, such as plans for a total lockdown of London, which it has not then gone on to announce, causing huge confusion and alarm. “At times, it has seemed that one arm of government does not know what the other arm is doing,” said one source.
Last week, some in medical circles were questioning why ministers had not opted to take part in an EU bulk-buying scheme for ventilators, which it was eligible for as the UK is still in its Brexit transition phase. At one stage, Downing Street said it had missed a vital email about a deadline for joining the system. The Observer also understands that offers from foreign companies, including at least one from China, to provide badly needed medical equipment to the UK were held up because of bureaucracy and the UK’s insistence that they would be subject to high customs duties. Chinese companies have found that trying to donate ventilators to the UK has proved far more difficult than it has been to other European countries because of paperwork and arguments over whether they meet NHS standards.
Matt Hancock’s twitter, making the announcement that he has tested positive for the virus. Photograph: @MattHancock/PA
The acting co-leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey said confusion over the orders of ventilators was inexcusable: “Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to act with other countries to source ventilators?” Referring to the UK’s failure to join the EU scheme, he added: “What it shows is, when it comes to the European issue, the government is so unclear about how they are going to handle the relationship with Europe that they can’t get their act together. It’s quite irresponsible.”
Writing in the Observer , the Tory MP Dr Dan Poulter, who works part time in the NHS as a psychiatrist and is treating many patients with Covid-19, says testing of NHS staff is urgently needed and could be a “game changer”. Based on his experience of the NHS frontline, he writes: “NHS staff sickness levels are already high, and they are only going to increase as the Covid-19 outbreak intensifies. Many of us are also worried that we may be infected yet asymptomatic [showing no symptoms] and therefore could be a potential risk to our patients, colleagues and families. That is the last thing that we would want, but we simply do not know. Widespread NHS staff testing would be a game changer and would help NHS clinicians to both protect our patients and return to the frontline faster.”
David Hunter, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Oxford University, said a national effort was needed to ensure testing takes place effectively. He explained: “We urgently need someone in charge whose only job it is to solve the supply chain, equipment, personnel and IT issues that are inhibiting the maximal testing scale-up and who reports to the public on progress daily until there is adequate capacity.”
While Johnson and Hancock insist they can continue to handle the crisis despite having become its victims, there are many who are raising questions about their ability to do so alone. Davey believes opposition parties need to come together to hold the government constructively to account in a newly formed committee along the lines adopted in New Zealand. Others are suggesting a new national government, an idea supported by 44% of voters, according to Opinium.
Poulter says, from his own personal experience, that the NHS is already at “maximum stretch”. Equally worrying is that Boris Johnson’s government is, too – and yet, as he says in a letter to the nation today, the worst is yet to come.