When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Friday morning that he had tested positive for coronavirus, he insisted that he would continue to head up his country’s fight against the pandemic.
In a video posted to his official Twitter page, Johnson said that “thanks to the wizardry of modern technology,” he would continue to lead the effort remotely from the prime ministerial quarters above 11 Downing Street, next door to one of the most famous addresses on earth.
But how can the leader of a country with a population of over 66 million carry on as normal while self-isolating during a global health crisis? Especially as his health secretary also tested positive for the virus, and that his chief medical officer self-isolated with symptoms.
Isolating the Prime Minister is not that difficult, in itself. The Downing Street premises are actually considerably bigger than they look from the outside. Behind that famous black door at Number 10 lies a warren of rooms and offices that extend sideways into 11 and 12 Downing Street – the three addresses are all that survive from a longer terrace constructed at the end of the 17th century – and back into a much larger 18th-century building at the rear.
Johnson lives in a rather modest apartment above Number 11, which is easily shut off from Number 10. (A Downing Street spokesman said earlier on Friday that the connecting door between the two buildings would be shut.) Anything that the Prime Minister needs, whether official papers or deliveries of food and drink, will be left outside a door for him to collect. However, in an effort to contain the virus, Downing Street will try to keep even this level of contact at a minimum.
Meetings will take place via video conference. While this might sound unusual, some of Johnson’s most important regular appointments had already stopped being personal interactions. For example, recent meetings of the UK’s Cabinet have taken place virtually. And Johnson’s spokesperson confirmed that it had been at least two weeks since the Prime Minister’s traditional weekly audience with the Queen had switched from being an in-person meeting at the Palace to a down-the-line phone call.
Inside 10 Downing Street itself, considered a place of work more than a place of residence, the roughly 250-strong teams of civil servants and political advisers has been stripped back to only essential workers, with approximately 70 people on site at any given time. Johnson’s official spokesperson said that inside No 10, staff had been “observing the advice on social distancing” and using video conferencing wherever possible.
However straightforward that sounds, there are legitimate questions at how sustainable it is to run a country in this manner.
First, there are the Prime Minister’s daily commitments.
At the moment, Johnson’s day has a familiar pattern. At 8:15 a.m, a team meets to discuss the latest coronavirus updates without the Prime Minister. That team consists of the chief medical officer (CMO), the chief scientific adviser (CSA), the Health Secretary and other Cabinet ministers whose presence might be relevant on a given day.
At 9:15 a.m, Johnson holds a meeting with secretaries of state, the CMO, CSA and various political advisers. That’s when the government’s daily agenda starts to take shape. The Prime Minister’s day will typically be full of meetings with experts and advisers, leading up to a daily press conference, held at around 5 p.m. local time, where the government updates the UK’s estimated 66 million citizens on the latest government guidelines and policy. The Prime Minster has so far led most of these events – which in the past few days have been conducted with journalists dialing in via video link.
Much of this work can be done effectively using technology – or, in the case of the Prime Minister’s absence from these press conferences, by deploying surrogates. However, shortly after Johnson’s statement, one of his prominent stand-ins, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, confirmed that he too had the virus and would also be self-isolating. And later on Friday afternoon, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, who has been at the center of the country’s coronavirus response, confirmed that he had COVID-19 symptoms and would be self-isolating for seven days. He will also continue to work remotely.
Just how many more people around the Prime Minister are at risk of having coronavirus? Despite its size, Downing Street is crammed full of small offices and narrow corridors. Top officials insist they have been taking the government’s social distancing guidelines seriously, pointing journalists to a video from Thursday night of Johnson leaving Downing Street to take part in a national moment of applause for NHS workers, showing him standing a safe distance from his finance minister, Rishi Sunak, as he did so.
However, others inside Downing Street privately complain that it is impossible fully to adhere to the 6ft social distance rules and that some people have been coming to work clearly displaying symptoms.
For weeks, there had been speculation about how long it would take before coronavirus would hit heart of the British establishment. Westminster politics takes place in a small physical space in the SW1 postal district of London, rammed full of politicos, journalists, lobbyists and the rest. It’s an insular network of people who, by the nature of what they do, rely on a huge amount of social interaction.
The team around Boris Johnson were some of the last people standing in the wake of this crisis. Now we will see exactly how effectively a country like the UK can be run remotely.