Picture By Stephen Harvey / No10 Downing Street

Boris Johnson – the UK Prime Minister – has tested positive for COVID-19. He is the latest high-profile Briton to test positive for the virus after HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, Idris Elba and Health Minister Nadine Dorries. Elba and Dorries are recovering well. Johnson’s diagnosis will likely cause alarm as, in recent days, he has been in close contact with senior members of the Cabinet – including Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Chancellor Rishi Sunak – and the shadow cabinet.

In a video statement released via Twitter, the Prime Minister addressed the nation. Although he did not explicitly say so, it appears as though he intends to lead the country from isolation provided that his symptoms do not worsen. Mr Johnson stated that he would continue to video call with his ministers during his recovery. Whilst this may be his intention, it is, at this time, unclear how a Cabinet could function effectively when some of its most crucial members will likely have to be in isolation. Johnson and some of his team may have to temporarily hand over the reins to more junior ministers. Boris Johnson has not disclosed any underlying health conditions, meaning that his recovery should be one of the more straightforward ones.

At the time of writing, it is not yet clear what will happen, but crucial, senior members of the Johnson Administration may have to go into self-isolation just as the UK battles the virus. Most critical among these is the Chancellor. Rishi Sunak is responsible for steering the UK through these rocky economic waters. As he addressed the nation with Mr Johnson only two days ago, he will almost certainly have to self-isolate.

Mr Johnson, 55, is not known to have any underlying health conditions putting him in any risk group for the virus. According to data from Worldometers.info, the mortality for persons aged 50-59 stands at 1.3 percent. The normal incubation period for the novel coronavirus is estimated to two to fourteen days – with some possible outliers reaching as long as 27 days.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (middle) during a press conference on the Coronavirus with Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (left), and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance (right) inside No10 Downing Street on March 3, 2020. Picture By Stephen Harvey / No10 Downing Street

While public gatherings of more than two are currently banned in the UK while it fights the virus, Johnson’s media interviews have continued unabated. The potential chain of infection from the Prime Minister may well be huge, extending not only across a large part of the UK media, but also across government. The last time a Cabinet came under such a large-scale threat was in 1984, when a terrorist bomb tore through the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England – where most of the Cabinet were staying at the time. At the time of writing, it is unclear how – or even if – the day-to-day functioning of the British government will be impaired during this time of national crisis. But one thing is certain: the UK – and the rest of the world – is in a time of crisis. Johnson’s diagnosis has just compounded the situation.

Later on Friday, the UK government released a press statement confirming that the Prime Minister is self-isolating in Downing Street. The statement also read that Mr Johnson was tested on the personal advice of England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and that it was performed in Downing Street. Apart from that no new information was provided.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has become the latest high-profile casualty of COVID-19 in the UK. He was diagnosed Friday morning but only announced it shortly after the Prime Minister disclosed his own diagnosis. Hancock, 41, is not known to have any underlying health conditions. He has said that he is currently only experiencing mild symptoms and intends to work from home until he has recovered. However, Hancock has been in charge of coordinating the UK’s response to the virus. His temporary absence from the Department for Health & Social Care will be felt at this critical time.

His diagnosis follows that of Nadine Dorries – the Minister for Health. She is currently recovering well at home. Hancock’s diagnosis raises uncomfortable questions for the Department for Health & Social Care. Any ministers or civil servants with whom Hancock has had contact will now have to self-isolate. Depending on how many people this is, Hancock’s diagnosis has the potential to cripple the Department at the time when it is most in demand.

It is currently not clear who will fill-in for Mr Hancock should his symptoms worsen. Mr Hancock’s condition will also increase pressure on Chancellor Rishi Sunak. In recent days, Sunak has had close contact with both the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, but, in an earlier statement, said he would not be tested as he was showing no symptoms of COVID-19.

At this time, it is unclear who will take over the economic reins, as it would be difficult for Mr Sunak to carry out his duties from isolation. Whilst Mr Johnson recovers, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will temporarily take over prime ministerial duties. It is likely that he will be making the government’s daily televised address to the nation as well. Privately, Johnson has met with his elderly father, Stanley Johnson, in recent days and will almost certainly have had close contact with his pregnant fiancée Carrie Simmons. Ms Simmons will likely have to be put under watch for any signs of COVID-19.

Shadow Secretary for Education and Labour MP Angela Rayner, 39, is also in self-isolation after developing cornavirus symptons, according to her Twitter account. She says she will keep in touch with people the best she can, while admitting that she will “be a bit quieter than usual”.

On March 11, Health Minister Nadine Dorries was the first MP to test positive for the coronavirus, going into self-isolation at home. On March 24, she had made a full recovery and returned to her work in the House of Commons.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is currently missing-in-action. The Chancellor is one of the senior officials who has had close contact with the Prime Minister in the last five days. Following the announcement by the Prime Minister earlier on Friday, Sunak, 39, announced that he would not be testing for COVID-19 as he was not displaying any symptoms.

Now that the Health Secretary and Shadow Education Secretary have disclosed their diagnoses, pressure is building on Sunak to be tested. At the time of writing, the Chancellor is proving difficult to contact and it is unclear whether or not he has been tested – or whether or not he intends to be. Compounding the pressure on Sunak is the fact that Chris Whitty is exhibiting symptoms and that the Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings was seen running away from No.10 Downing Street.

According to John Hopkins University, there are currently 14,543 confirmed corona cases in the UK. 135 patients have made a full recovery, while 759 have succumbed to the illness – 185 only on Friday, the largest single-day death toll to date.

Johnson’s recent calendar has included face-to-face interviews with journalists from major outlets like the BBC, meaning that some journalists are likely going to have to self-isolate. There is a positive to this diagnosis, however. The Prime Minister normally has a weekly face-to-face meeting with the Queen in order to discuss matters of state. Luckily, this week, that interview was held over the phone.

Luke Sandford
Fredrik Fahlman