Sunday night’s news that Prince William tested positive for coronavirus earlier this year has raised questions as to why the British public was not told that the second-in-line to the throne had been ill during the pandemic.
According to a report in the Sun newspaper – which the palace has not denied – William told an observer at a function that he chose not to go public with his diagnosis because “there were important things going on, and I didn’t want to worry anyone.”
The Sun noted in its report that the Prince took a seven-day break from calls and video messages from April 9 to April 16.
During that period, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was off work recovering from his own bout of Covid-19, which was so serious he had to be treated in intensive care, leaving his Foreign Secretary to run the country. Several other members of Johnson’s government and his advisors had also tested positive for the virus.
The Prime Minister being out of action while the virus was circulating in the corridors of power would certainly count as “important things,” but it doesn’t fully explain why the palace would keep this information quiet during a public health crisis.
In March, the royal family deemed it necessary to let Britons know that Prince Charles, William’s father and the first-in-line to the throne, had tested positive for Covid-19, and was self-isolating.
The prospect of both the first- and second-in-line having a potentially deadly disease raises an important question about succession.
“If the unthinkable had happened and the Queen, Charles and William all passed away, the next in line would be Prince George, who is seven years old,” says Kate Williams, a leading Royal historian and professor of public engagement with history at the UK’s University of Reading. “He would not rule as King in the traditional sense until he was 18, but a ‘Regency Council’ would be appointed who would carry out duties in his name.”
The question would then be: Who would sit on that council? It would be assumed that George’s mother, the Duchess of Cambridge, would play a big role, but after that things get somewhat tricky.
The two most senior adult Royals in terms of succession would be Prince Harry, who stepped down from royal duties earlier this year, and Prince Andrew, who is embroiled in a scandal over his friendship with convicted child trafficker and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Conversations concerning a regency council or a constitutional crisis would normally be discussed with the government. CNN asked government sources if they knew about Prince William’s illness, or had been in discussion with the palace, but they declined to comment.
At a glance, it’s easy to see how it could have created a storm if these conversations had gone ahead in the public eye following William’s diagnosis. It is possible that it was deemed unnecessary to have this discourse in public, given the fact that the Queen was not ill with the virus, and was carrying out her duties.
“There was no constitutional crisis. Yes, the Queen was shielding because of her age, but she was doing her work with no problem. A crisis is when there is no succession line and there was – George would have had a regency,” says Williams. “This is more of a question of how much we should know about the health of the royal family.”
As private citizens, royals are entitled to privacy concerning their health as much as any other Briton.
King George, the Queen’s father, died in 1952 following years of health complications, including lung cancer. The severity of his illness was kept from the public for years, as he continued to attend public engagements.
However, as Williams points out, a global pandemic is a very different situation to a monarch being ill with a condition such as cancer.
“Covid is different because it’s a public health catastrophe. We understand cancer and know that you cannot catch it from someone. With Covid, we are learning more as time goes on and, in my personal opinion, it might have been useful to know that William had it.”
If it’s true that William had coronavirus at the start of April, then it’s plausible that learning of his illness would have helped clarify the seriousness of this virus for some. At the time, there was a view that it only really affected old and otherwise vulnerable people.
Which brings us back to the question of why the Prince’s diagnosis was not made public. “Charles was criticized when he traveled to Scotland after testing positive, as the rest of us were being told to stay put,” says Williams.
Indeed, other high-profile figures in the UK have been blasted for their decisions to travel around the country during the national lockdown – including Johnson’s most senior advisor, Dominic Cummings.
It is plausible that the panic of having succession discussions and a public backlash against the monarchy during a pandemic were not worth it, given that there wasn’t a real constitutional crisis on the cards.
However, it’s also true that a high-profile figure like the second-in-line being more transparent during a crisis could have allowed for greater public understanding of the disease.
As Kate Williams puts it: “I presume the reason that so many public figures were so transparent is because they knew it was helpful for the public know given the scale of the crisis. My personal feeling is it would have been helpful if we’d known a bit more about Prince William’s illness.”