"We are sorry to have to inform you that the Prime Minister has finally taken it on the chin”. Callous commentators on social media were continuing to revel in schadenfreude yesterday as the Prime Minister struggled for life in intensive care.

In fact, Boris Johnson never said we should “take it on the chin”, as the independent Fact Check UK has pointed out repeatedly. It is one of the many canards which have debased social media in this crisis and turned Twitter into a pariah medium.

What he told Philip Schofield on This Morning on March 3 was that “one of the theories” is that people should “take it on the chin” and not take measures to prevent the spread of the disease. He went on to say that this was not the Government’s policy, and that it was pursuing a “balanced approach” and taking measures to “protect the NHS”.

But that hasn’t stopped people saying it for him. It has become a political factoid, an article of faith that Mr Johnson, under the guidance of his dark amanuensis Dominic Cummings, has been pursuing a social Darwinist, survival-of-the-fittest approach to Covid-19.

Enough. Everyone with any decency should simply be wishing the Prime Minister and his pregnant partner, Carrie Symonds, well right now, following the lead of Nicola Sturgeon yesterday when she echoed the Get Well, Boris slogan.

It could be any one of us in the next few weeks. This is a moment to reflect on the fragility of existence and the gift of being alive. For once, we really are all in this together.

The only grain of truth in the “chin” theory is that, as is widely known, Mr Johnson has tended to see illness as something other people get. He has famously robust good health and former advisers, like the journalist Guto Harri, say they’ve never seen him ill before.

All the more reason to take this disease seriously. It doesn’t just kill the very old or those with medical issues. Even a fit, tennis-playing political leader in his prime has had to be placed in intensive care fighting for his life.

This is not like a bad dose of flu, as President Trump unhelpfully suggested. Covid-19 mocks us because many carriers have mild symptoms or none at all. Then, after 10 days, if the symptoms don’t go away it turns very nasty.

There is so much we do not know about coronavirus. What we do know is that it is gendered – though not in the way we expect that word to be used. It seems to hit men very hard, and twice as many die of it. Women seem to have some form of genetic immunity.

Either that or men just “don’t look after themselves” as some believe. That might actually be the case with Mr Johnson, since he’s been under immense pressure over the past year: replacing Theresa May, renegotiating Brexit, then fighting a General Election.

So, no one should be under any illusion that he’ll be able to function normally any time soon. This raises difficult questions. Who in his Cabinet will have the authority to tell him that he can’t be allowed to take key decisions while his faculties are impaired?

Who exactly is in charge? The First Secretary, Dominic Raab, is formally chairing Cabinet committees. But that begs the question of who takes the final decisions. Where does the buck stop?

Someone has to balance the competing demands of the two front-line Cabinet ministers, Matt Hancock and Rishi Sunak. They have very different constituencies of interests. Mr Hancock is all about saving the NHS and avoiding immediate deaths; Mr Sunak is about saving the economy, upon which just as many lives could ultimately depend.

Who decides whether and for how long to renew the lockdown on Monday? It will almost certainly be continued, but should there be a provisional timetable for lifting aspects of it, following Austria and Denmark?

Research led by Professor Russell Viner for University College London appears to show that keeping schools closed is of little use in halting the spread of coronavirus. Yet it damages the educational prospects of less-well-off children. Others disagree, including, it seems, Professor Neil Ferguson of the celebrated Imperial College report that prompted the lockdown last month.

The minor scandal of the Scottish Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, breaking her own stay-at-home guidelines underlines the problem of compliance. For the comfortable middle classes, with gardens and nice homes, lockdown is tolerable; but working-class families in small flats may find it unbearable.

Then again, should the UK be encouraging the wearing of masks? Countries like Austria and Slovakia have made them compulsory. America is adopting masks on the grounds that it slows the spread of the disease. But the advice here is still that they’re of little use.

A broader question now there is a new Labour leader, is a government of national unity. Keir Starmer has clearly ordered his new shadow cabinet members to stop saying “we were right” and start talking constructively about how to revive a moribund economy when the lockdown is over.

The Opposition has a crucial role to play in getting the Government to focus and be clear about what it is doing. But should there be a more formal arrangement, as in the Second World War when the then Labour leader Clement Attlee, was made Deputy Prime Minister?

It would mean the Opposition is bound by collective responsibility, and has to endorse the decisions made by Government in the next few weeks. On the other hand it would greatly enhance the political profile of the new Labour leader, and could provide a platform on which Sir Keir could build a winning election campaign, in the way Attlee won the post-war General Election in 1945.

These are decisions that only a Prime Minister can make, for the simple reason that he will be required to accept the consequences. This is a desperate time for him and the country, as the death toll continues to rise.

As I write, it seems that the PM’s condition is stable. Twitter aside, there has been a considerable degree of public sympathy for Mr Johnson. No one can be in any doubt that he feels our pain. The Prime Minister is, as it were, the first casualty among equals.


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