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From the file

The government is unwell | Infected, leaderless. How Boris Johnson’s brush with death revealed a lethal amateurism at the heart of government.

The government is unwell

Infection HQ

Wednesday 17 June 2020

Britain’s leading politicians are spread across a few buildings and streets in central London. Here’s how – and when – the virus swept through them


Britain is still struggling to get a proper test-and-trace system in place. It’s struggling in many ways. As James Harding’s and Matthew d’Ancona’s essays have made clear this week, the Johnson government’s response to the pandemic has been characterised by dysfunction and delay.

But what if a test-and-trace system had been set up several weeks ago? And set up in Westminster, the corner of London where Britain’s leading politicians ply their trade? What it would have shown is a virus in full flow, moving from tightly packed MPs to advisers to ministers… and eventually to the prime minister himself.

In the absence of that system, here’s the next best thing: a timeline of Covid-19’s procession through British politics. Number 10, it turns out, had its own R number – and a high one.


“There is a lot of Covid-19 in Westminster”


Thursday 5 March

Boris Johnson hosts an event for International Women’s Day at Downing Street. One of the MPs in attendance is Nadine Dorries, a health minister. Dorries first showed symptoms of Covid-19 on this day.


Wednesday 11 March

Nadine Dorries tests positive for Covid-19, becoming the first member of Parliament to fall ill with the virus. Multiple MPs who had been in close contact with Dorries are asked to self-isolate. Rishi Sunak delivers his Budget statement to a packed chamber.


Friday 13 March

11 MPs entered self-isolation after coming into contact with Dorries, among them Anne Marie Trevelyan, the international development secretary and a member of the Cabinet. She says that she had self-isolated but returned to work after testing negative for the coronavirus. Increasing numbers of MPs call for Parliament to close to stop the spread of the virus.


Monday 16 March

Boris Johnson makes a statement encouraging people to work from home where possible. The majority of civil servants move to working from home following the announcement. Neil Ferguson, the government’s adviser on epidemiology, attends a press conference at Downing Street. The government held its first daily press briefing on the coronavirus on this day.

Daily briefing delivered by: Johnson


Tuesday 17 March

Ferguson begins to self-isolate after developing “a slight dry but persistent cough.”

Daily briefing delivered by: Johnson


Wednesday 18 March

Ferguson tweets that he is self isolating and that he developed a high fever in the early hours of the morning. He warns that “there is a lot of Covid-19 in Westminster.” He tells BBC Radio 4 that he has been meeting with Cabinet ministers and the prime minister and could have infected people at Monday’s press conference.

Daily briefing delivered by: Johnson


Thursday 19 March

Ferguson tests positive for the virus.

Daily briefing delivered by: Johnson


Monday 23 March

Boris Johnson chairs a Cobra meeting to discuss the impending UK-wide lockdown. Later that evening, Johnson makes an address to the nation urging citizens to stay at home – this is the start of lockdown proper.

National address delivered by: Johnson


Tuesday 24 March

The day after lockdown was announced, the Cabinet met. There is much speculation that this was the ‘super-spreader’ event.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Thursday 26 March

Boris Johnson begins to experience symptoms of Covid-19. Parliament goes into recess early to prevent the further spread of the virus, with plans to be shut until April 21 at the earliest.

Daily briefing delivered by: Sunak


Friday 27 March

In a video on Twitter, Boris Johnson announces that he is self isolating, having tested positive for the coronavirus. He claims that he began to feel symptoms late on 26 March but describes his symptoms as “mild” and says that he is continuing to work. Johnson chairs a government meeting on the coronavirus by video link.

Later in the day, more members of the team in charge of the UK’s Covid response announced their plans to isolate. Matt Hancock announces that he is self-isolating at home with coronavirus symptoms. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, self-isolates.

Dominic Cummings is filmed running out of Downing Street. That is the evening we later learned that he “drove up to Durham” and arrived at “roughly midnight” with his family.

Daily briefing delivered by: Gove


Saturday 28 March

Johnson announces that he will write to the UK’s 30 million households warning about the impact of the coronavirus, and urging people to stay at home.

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, gives this evening’s briefing and speaks to reassure people that the prime minister is still leading the country in spite of his illness: “Can I be absolutely clear the PM has had mild symptoms, he is absolutely leading the response from the front.”

In Durham, Cummings wakes up “in pain and clearly had COVID symptoms, including a bad headache and a serious fever”.

Daily briefing delivered by: Sharma


Sunday 29 March

Johnson appears in a self-shot video message, in suit and tie, in which he said “there really is such a thing as society” and thanks essential workers.

Daily briefing delivered by: Jenrick


Monday 30 March

Dominic Cummings self-isolates (in Durham). Downing Street confirms that Cummings is self-isolating after developing symptoms of the virus. Durham Police are “made aware of reports that an individual had travelled from London to Durham and was present at an address in the city”.

Johnson chairs a meeting on the coronavirus from self-isolation, “full of vigor” according to Dominic Raab. A Number 10 spokesman says that Johnson is still fully able to run the coronavirus response and is chairing daily meetings. Johnson confirms this by tweeting a photo of himself chairing a meeting. Reports later emerge that sources at Number 10 said the PM was “coughing and spluttering his way through conference calls”.

Daily briefing delivered by: Raab


Tuesday 31 March

Johnson chairs the Cabinet. He warns his ministers that the crisis “is going to get worse before it gets better”. Number 10 later said the prime minister was still suffering “mild symptoms” of coronavirus as he continued to self-isolate.

Matt Hancock, who is self-isolating with virus symptoms, says he is “on the mend” and recovering from the virus.

Daily briefing delivered by: Gove


Wednesday 1 April

Johnson posts a video message to Twitter, looking very unwell, saying it had been a “sad day” due to the number of coronavirus deaths.

Up in Durham, the police follow up on the reports about a visitor from London. Durham Constabulary says that on this date, an officer spoke to Dominic Cummings’ father, who confirmed that his son and family were staying at his property.

Daily briefing delivered by: Sharma


Thursday 2 April

A week after he fell ill, a Number 10 spokesman says that Johnson “continues to have mild symptoms, but he does still have symptoms.” Johnson appears on the steps of 11 Downing Street to clap for carers and in a video message announcing a plan to ramp up testing.

Despite Downing Street’s reassurances to the press that Johnson would be back to work within days, by 2 April his doctors were concerned that the prime minister’s condition was in fact deteriorating, according to The Guardian. St Thomas’ hospital begins preparations to admit Johnson. Staff there are informed that he is more severely ill than has been publicised and that he might need oxygen.

During the night, Cummings’ son is ill so the couple “took medical advice which was to call 999”. The child is taken to hospital by ambulance.

Hancock, who had tested positive for the virus only a week before, returns to work.

Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet secretary, had coronavirus symptoms around this time too, but this was not reported until 14 May. On 27 March, reporters had asked the Cabinet Office whether Sedwill was infected. They said he wasn’t. They claim they did not lie to the press as he had no symptoms at that point. According to Sky News, Sedwill was last pictured in the Cabinet room on 31 March. At that point, he may have had the virus but not yet have been displaying symptoms. Pictures released by the government show him back in Downing Street on 28 April.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Friday 3 April

Johnson is still showing symptoms, and still continuing to work. He says in a video message that although he is “feeling better,” he will continue to self-isolate, as he still has “one of the minor symptoms… I still have a temperature.” Johnson’s official spokesman confirms he has mild symptoms and that he chaired the morning coronavirus meeting.

Cummings drives to the hospital to pick his wife and son up, but says he did not leave the car or have any contact with anyone during the trip to the hospital.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Saturday 4 April

Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s heavily pregnant fiancé, announces she has been suffering from coronavirus symptoms, via Twitter. The Daily Mail reports that Johnson is “stubbornly refusing to stop working”, with a source saying: “He has not been resting enough and is still leading from the front. Obviously that is beginning to slow down his recovery. He needs to go to bed.” According to The Guardian, Symonds became distressed at the situation: she was “agitated” and “crying down the phone” to friends.

Keir Starmer wins the Labour leadership election. In a tweet, Johnson said he had spoken to Starmer and congratulated him.

Daily briefing delivered by: Gove


Sunday 5 April

Johnson is admitted to hospital. A Downing Street spokesman called it a “precautionary step”. Earlier in the day, Matt Hancock told Sky’s Sophie Ridge: “He’s OK… he’s very much got his hand on the tiller. But he’s still got a temperature.”

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Monday 6 April

On Twitter, Johnson confirms he is in hospital. A Number 10 spokesperson says Johnson is in “good spirits” while continuing to work. They confirm that Johnson still has a cough and a temperature. They state that they have been “transparent throughout” Johnson’s illness despite their repeated assurances that his symptoms were only “mild” in advance of his hospital admission. Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, says that Johnson is still fit enough to lead the country from his sick bed.

At the daily press briefing, Raab confirms that Johnson is still in charge and that he is in hospital only “as a precaution.” However, Raab admits he has not spoken to Johnson since his hospital admission.

The optimistic picture painted by Johnson’s aides and his Cabinet belies the severity of his illness: later that day Johnson is moved to intensive care as Downing Street reveals his condition has “worsened”. He is on oxygen but not a ventilator. Chris Whitty leaves self-isolation.

Daily briefing delivered by: Raab


Tuesday 7 April

Raab is now de facto leader of the country. He says he is “confident” that Johnson will recover. Later in the evening, Number 10 says the PM remains in critical care but that his condition is “stable”. Raab chairs the daily coronavirus meeting. Another Cabinet minister, Michael Gove, self-isolates but is symptom-free.

Daily briefing delivered by: Raab


Wednesday 8 April

Rishi Sunak confirms that Johnson is sitting up in bed and “engaging positively” with medical staff. Later, Downing Street says the prime minister “continues to make steady progress” but he remains in intensive care.

Daily briefing delivered by: Sunak


Thursday 9 April

Johnson leaves intensive care but remains in hospital, and is in “extremely good spirits”, according to a Downing Street spokesperson. Raab reveals he had not spoken with Johnson since he entered hospital.

Daily briefing delivered by: Raab


Friday 10 April

A Downing Street spokesman says Johnson is in good spirits and is “enormously grateful for the care he’s receiving”. Stanley Johnson, Boris’s father, affirms the seriousness of his illness, saying that he “almost took one for the team”.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Saturday 11 April

Johnson, now on the mend, issues a short statement thanking staff at St Thomas’ hospital: “I can’t thank them enough. I owe them my life.” Downing Street says Johnson continues to make very good progress.

Daily briefing delivered by: Patel


Sunday 12 April

Johnson leaves hospital, saying it “could have gone either way”. Downing Street says the prime minister will be taking a break from work while he recovers. Johnson releases a video on Twitter thanking the NHS.

In the north east, the Cummings family is spotted in Barnard Castle, 30 miles away from Cummings’ parents’ home in Durham.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Monday 13 April

Number 10 comes clean about the danger Johnson was in. A spokeswoman says that Johnson needed a “significant level of specialist treatment” during the most serious periods of his time in hospital.

Johnson is still laid low after his discharge. His spokesperson says that he is “focusing on his recovery and he is not currently carrying out Government work.” Gove is no longer self-isolating after receiving special dispensation to have his daughter tested, having been spotted jogging on Easter Sunday.

Daily briefing delivered by: Raab


Tuesday 14 April

NHS England’s medical director says the number of people in hospital with the virus is “plateauing”, a positive sign. Johnson goes for his first post-hospital walk around Chequers. Cummings is pictured in Downing Street after recovering from coronavirus symptoms.

Daily briefing delivered by: Sunak


Wednesday 15 April

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, says the UK is nearing the peak of coronavirus deaths. Cabinet decides to continue lockdown. Johnson is still resting and recuperating, he is not doing any government work and is “focused on his recovery,” according to Downing Street.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Thursday 16 April

Raab announces the lockdown will be extended for “at least” three weeks, one of the first big decisions he has taken in the prime minister’s absence. Downing Street said Johnson was not involved in the decision to continue the UK’s lockdown, but that Raab is keeping him informed by phone.

Downing Street says Johnson, who continues to recover from Covid-19, joined in the applause to thank the “incredible efforts” of NHS and care workers. Raab visits Johnson at Chequers, along with Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, Downing Street’s director of communications.

Daily briefing delivered by: Raab


Friday 17 April

Reports in the media suggest decisions are not being made in the absence of the PM. A government source tells the Daily Telegraph that there is no plan for exiting lockdown because “there can be no exit strategy until Boris is back in business”.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, gives a different reason for the delay, saying that there could be two more weeks until the UK gets greater “clarity” on what will happen next as scientists will examine the UK’s progress on the virus at the end of April. Johnson’s spokesman says it is “just wrong” to imply that the Cabinet is waiting for the PM to return to make decisions on lockdown.

Another Cabinet source tells the Telegraph: “There’s no exit plan at the moment because they don’t want to do anything without the boss’s say so. “Not a huge amount is going on in these Cabinet meetings.”

Daily briefing delivered by: Sharma


Saturday 18 April

The Daily Telegraph reports Johnson has begun giving directions from Chequers. Johnson is “resting and recuperating”, according to the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick.

Daily briefing delivered by: Jenrick


Sunday 19 April

The Sunday Times reports that Johnson missed five Cobra meetings prior to his illness. Gove told the Ridge show it was wrong to argue that Johnson had been “anything other than energetic, focused, determined and strong in his leadership against this virus”.

More than two weeks after Cummings was seen in Durham, and several days after being photographed back in London, it is claimed that Cummings was spotted in the north east again. This time, Cummings was reportedly seen by walkers admiring the bluebells at Houghall Woods, near his parents’ home. Cummings has denied this, saying: “Photos and data on my phone prove this to be false, I was in London on that day.”

Daily briefing delivered by: Williamson


Monday 20 April

As debates over when to ease lockdown restrictions split the Cabinet, Johnson tells his colleagues that any “modification” of the UK’s restrictions must not put the country at risk of a second wave of infections.

Daily briefing delivered by: Sunak


Tuesday 21 April

Matt Hancock says scientists at Oxford University will begin human trials of a vaccine this Thursday. Johnson’s official spokesman says he is receiving daily written updates on the government’s response to the crisis. Johnson speaks with President Trump about international cooperation to tackle the virus.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Wednesday 22 April

Raab confirms that social distancing will remain for the time being, and discloses that the country’s testing capacity is currently 40,000 a day. Prime Minister’s Questions return to the House of Commons with new Labour leader Keir Starmer. Johnson speaks with the Queen for the first time in several weeks as he prepares for his return to work.

Daily briefing delivered by: Raab


Thursday 23 April

The Daily Telegraph reports Johnson could return to work as early as 27 April. A source says that he is speaking to Raab on an almost daily basis, has daily meetings with his core political team, and requests to read government papers.

In the daily press conference, when asked when his target for 18,000 contact tracers needs to be met, Hancock says this group of volunteers will be ready in “a matter of weeks”.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Friday 24 April

Johnson’s spokesman says that in advance of his return to the frontlines, the PM is “speaking with colleagues and… is receiving updates on the response and he has been taking part in the call with the president and had his audience with Her Majesty but he’s not doing red box in the usual way, no.” Hancock says Johnson is “on the mend in a big way” but that his return to work was a matter for his doctors.

The Guardian reveals that Cummings is present for SAGE meetings. Johnson meets for three hours with Raab, Sunak, Cummings and Cain at Chequers.

Daily briefing delivered by: Shapps


Saturday 25 April

With a return to work slated for Monday, Boris Johnson tells his aides that he is “raring to go”. Government sources say the prime minister is now “back in the driving seat” after his doctors confirm he is well enough to go back to the office.

Raab says: “He is in good spirits. He is raring to go. He is looking forward to getting back at the reins on Monday.”

Daily briefing delivered by: Patel


Sunday 26 April

Johnson returns to Downing Street. Raab calls Johnson’s return to work on Monday a “boost for the country”.

Daily briefing delivered by: Eustice


Monday 27 April

Speaking outside Number 10 for the first time since recovering from the virus, Johnson says “we are now beginning to turn the tide” on the disease. Hancock announces details of a life assurance scheme for NHS and social care workers who die on the front lines with Covid-19.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Tuesday 28 April

Johnson chairs his first Cabinet since his return from illness. In the press briefing, Hancock defends the government’s record on PPE and commits to publishing daily figures on the number of coronavirus deaths in care homes.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Wednesday 29 April

Johnson and Symonds announce the birth of their son.

The country sees the first inklings of lockdown easing: it is announced that garden centres could reopen if they can allow for social distancing.

Daily briefing delivered by: Raab


Thursday 30 April

The UK’s R number is below one for the first time since lockdown began. Johnson says the UK is “past the peak” of the virus outbreak, but warns that the country must not “risk a second spike”. He says he will begin to set out a plan to loosen the lockdown next week.

Daily briefing delivered by: Johnson


Friday 1 May

Hancock announces that the 100,000 tests a day target by the end of April has been met. The ONS confirms that people living in more deprived areas of England and Wales are more likely to die with coronavirus than those in more affluent places.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Saturday 2 May

Johnson and Symonds announce that their son’s name is Wilfred.

Daily briefing delivered by: Jenrick


Sunday 3 May

Johnson tells the Sun on Sunday “I was not in particularly brilliant shape and I was aware there were contingency plans in place…. the doctors had all sorts of arrangements for what to do if things went badly wrong.” Gove says the PM will next week set out a plan on how the country may be able gradually to ease lockdown restrictions.

Daily briefing delivered by: Gove


Monday 4 May

Sky News reports that Johnson will set out his plans to ease lockdown on Sunday 10 May. Hancock announces the start of a trial involving an app to track and trace coronavirus cases.

Daily briefing delivered by: Hancock


Tuesday 5 May

Media across the UK report that back in early March when scientists were calling for people to refrain from hugs and handshakes for hygiene reasons, Johnson stated at a press conference: “I am shaking hands.”

The number of tests administered is again below 100,000 a day and has been since 1 May. The UK now has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe, according to the latest government figures. Neil Ferguson, the government’s adviser on epidemic science, quits.

Daily briefing delivered by: Raab


Wednesday 6 May

Johnson says he “bitterly regrets” the coronavirus crisis in care homes – and claims that the government is “working very hard” to tackle it. Johnson suggests that lockdown measures will be loosened on Monday.

Daily briefing delivered by: Jenrick


Thursday 7 May

Boris Johnson tells a virtual meeting of his Cabinet that the government will “advance with maximum caution” on lockdown easing to avoid “a second peak” of Covid-19 infections. The government confirms 400,000 PPE gowns ordered from Turkey are unusable. Nicola Sturgeon announces the lockdown in Scotland will be extended.

Daily briefing delivered by: Raab


Friday 8 May

Mark Drakeford, the First Minister for Wales, announces modest changes to the lockdown in Wales, saying Johnson only speaks for England.

Daily briefing delivered by: Eustice


Saturday 9 May

Arrests are made after anti-lockdown protests in London. Shapps pledges £250m for an emergency fund for improvements to cycling and walking infrastructure. Plans for a 14-day quarantine for international visitors are announced.

Daily briefing delivered by: Shapps


Sunday 10 May

Johnson unveils a “conditional plan” to reopen society, allowing people in England to spend more time outdoors from Wednesday 13 May. He announces that he hopes the next step, to be brought it “at the earliest by 1 June,” would be for some primary pupils to return to school in England. Johnson says people who are unable to work from home should head to work from Monday, though without providing guidance to businesses about how to manage social-distancing requirements. Sturgeon criticised the “mixed messages”. The government’s new “stay alert” slogan is widely criticised.

Video address delivered by: Johnson

Photographs by Getty Images, PA Images, Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/dpa

Additional research by Ella Hill

Graphics by Ella Hollowood

Next in this file

Sick man: the transcript

Sick man: the transcript

Read Matt d’Ancona’s report on how Boris Johnson’s brush with death revealed a lethal amateurism at the heart of government

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