If President Donald Trump needs reminding of how easily the coronavirus can spread in the workplace, he need only pick up the phone and call his friend Boris Johnson. The UK Prime Minister knows first-hand the agony of Covid-19, having survived a serious bout of the virus that left his government rudderless at the worst possible time.
The first high-profile case of coronavirus in Westminster came in early March, when Nadine Dorries, one of Johnson’s health ministers, tested positive and went into self-quarantine. Dorries had recently attended a function at Downing Street, but officials close to the Prime Minister insisted that Johnson didn’t need to be tested as he wasn’t displaying symptoms.
In the weeks that followed, several of the key figures in the UK’s fight against the virus either tested positive or were forced to self-isolate for some reason or another. Among their ranks: Matt Hancock, the health secretary, Michael Gove, a senior cabinet minister, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s most senior advisor, Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister’s fiancée, and Mark Sedwill, the national security adviser and head of the civil service.
While no one is tying any of these cases directly to Dorries, the British government’s behavior around this time has raised legitimate questions about how carefully social distancing measures were being observed by those surrounding the Prime Minister, and how seriously Westminster — a small village which relies on close personal contact — was taking the outbreak of the virus.
The White House is now facing similar questions after a valet for President Trump and the press secretary for Vice President Mike Pence tested positive last week. Even though the virus has breached the cramped warrens of the West Wing, Trump continues to call on states to reopen their economies, while Pence has insisted he will keep working.
Sources inside Downing Street have told CNN that in early March, advisers to Johnson were still treating coronavirus as a problem happening overseas, and didn’t seem to believe that it might hit the UK — let alone the heart of government. “They saw it as a distant threat, China’s problem. They didn’t think it would come to us, let alone them,” said a Downing Street official.
Others complained that even after cutting back on-site staff from around 250 to 70 inside the small rooms and corridors of Number 10’s offices, social distancing simply wasn’t possible inside Downing Street and they feared that Johnson’s political advisers were putting the health of civil servants at risk.
Downing Street has vehemently denied this claim and said that it has followed medical and scientific guidance at all times. But it seems very likely that at least some transmission of the virus occurred between UK government officials. Ultimately Johnson was taken to intensive care and had to relinquish control of the government to his subordinates.
Experts said there was a simple lesson for President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence: If you can’t stay healthy, you can’t lead your country through this crisis.
While Dominic Raab was officially serving as Johnson’s deputy, it was fairly clear he didn’t have the full authority to make some of the most crucial decisions,” says Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “The arguments that cabinet would usually have thrashed out were essentially frozen in time for a month until Johnson was back at work.”
This created the perception of a power vacuum at the heart of government. Almost daily reports in the British media of rifts between Johnson’s subordinates left the nation’s political system feeling rudderless. Any early optimism that the virus wouldn’t possibly hit those in power had been trampled on, and the UK lost a month at the most crucial moment.
Once it was clear Johnson was going to recover, empathy turned to anger and critics started to pick apart exactly what went wrong and when.
Many in the UK have repeatedly accused the government of downplaying the outbreak in its early days. On March 3, Johnson said that he was still shaking hands with people, including Covid-19 patients he had met on a ward.
In the weeks that followed, the government was accused of being irresponsible on a number of counts, from being too slow to enter lockdown to abandoning mass community testing. The core criticism was simple: the government took too long to take this crisis seriously. Now, it has the highest death count in Europe to answer for.
The lesson here is obvious for Trump, who staked so much of his presidency on a booming economy and has been accused of putting the stock market ahead of saving lives, even as deaths in America surpassed the toll in every other country.
Like many in Johnson’s circle, Trump has been accused of sending mixed messages on a range of areas, from face masks to unverified claims about medicines people should take. And at the core of these complaints is the same issue: the government is not taking the pandemic seriously enough.
“It creates a huge potential problem in their job going forward,” says Ford. “If the public thinks they behaved irresponsibly by being too slow on lockdown to begin with, why should they trust them as they relax measures? Given the difficult balancing act of keeping the public safe and the need to reopen the economy, trust in the messaging coming from government is more crucial now than ever.”
The British government is still recovering from the month it lost to Covid-19. And as Ford points out, if the same thing happened at the White House, the consequences could be even worse for the US.
“The age profile of the leading political figures in the US isn’t great when we know who suffers the worst for this virus,” he said. “The potential for chaos is really clear if you look at the written order of succession, which doesn’t take long to get to Nancy Pelosi.”
However remote any of this seems to Trump and Pence, they would do well to look at what happened on the other side of the pond before carrying on as normal. As Johnson learned the hard way, a maverick approach to the greatest challenge any politician has faced since the war can backfire spectacularly.