Medics were expecting Boris Johnson to be rushed to hospital three days before he was finally admitted – and only realised that he wasn’t coming when they saw him clapping for the NHS that evening on their television screens.
The doctors at St Thomas’ Hospital in London were wearing full protective clothing on Thursday April 2 after managers warned they could expect Mr Johnson to arrive at short notice.
But then they saw the Prime Minister applauding from the steps of No11 Downing Street at 8pm.
Medics were expecting Boris Johnson to be rushed to hospital three days before he was finally admitted – and only realised that he wasn’t coming when they saw him clapping for the NHS that evening on their television screens (pictured)
As Mr Johnson continued his recovery last night, friends finally conceded just how desperately ill he had been by the time he was taken into intensive care on Monday.
He was so unwell that he believes he owes his life to the care he received from the NHS.
For days after it was announced on March 27 that the Prime Minister had tested positive for the coronavirus, Mr Johnson’s symptoms were described as ‘mild’.
But after struggling through the 9.15am Covid-19 ‘War Cabinet’ meeting on April 2, the PM conceded that he could not shake his persistent cough and temperature and would not be ending his seven-day isolation as scheduled the next day.
In frank talks with both his doctor and his private secretary, Martin Reynolds, insiders say he agreed to a significantly reduced workload and was sent to his bed.
A Government source described Mr Johnson as ‘resistant’ to the idea of going into hospital for fear of it looking like he was receiving preferential treatment, but Downing Street last night insisted that he acted on the advice of his doctors.
It was agreed on April 2 that he would remain in self- isolation above No11 with his symptoms reviewed on Saturday morning.
However, Ministers, aides and friends now say privately that he should have gone into hospital much earlier. ‘It was clear he was in a terrible state all week,’ said one.
According to NHS sources, the team at St Thomas’ were already ‘scrubbed up and in PPE’ [personal protective equipment] at a secret entrance to the hospital on Thursday evening when they were told that the PM was no longer coming.
Medical staff at the George Eliot Hospital NHS Trust in Nuneaton sent their well wishes to the Prime Minister (above)
Preparations had followed a clearly defined plan created by NHS chiefs after news that the then Prime Minister Tony Blair had been admitted to Hammersmith Hospital with a heart scare in October 2003 was leaked to the media.
The protocol set out how the PM would use a secret entrance and take a designated route along sealed corridors and lifts to a private ‘magic room’ on level 12. A secure computer system would be used to ensure his medical notes were inaccessible to all but a tight group of experts.
By Saturday April 4, the check-up quickly established that Mr Johnson’s condition had worsened. Mr Reynolds ‘cleared the PM’s diary completely’, but by the following afternoon it was clear there was no choice but to take him to hospital.
A source said Mr Johnson was conscious when he arrived, but ‘very, very unwell’.
He was put on oxygen via a tube through his nose within ten minutes of arrival.
Concerned by the possible public reaction to the PM’s incapacitation, Downing Street described his admission as a ‘precautionary step’ for tests, adding that Mr Johnson would be receiving a ministerial red box so he could continue to work from his hospital bed.
In reality, his condition worsened throughout Sunday evening and Monday. An added complication was the poor mobile phone reception at the hospital, coupled with a warning to Mr Johnson not to use the public wi-fi for security reasons.
Sources say engineers were sent to boost the signal in Mr Johnson’s room, but in any event by Monday he was too unwell to even look at his phone or respond to texts and WhatsApp messages.
Despite the upbeat comments from No 10, the ashen-faced appearance of Dominic Raab – who had been asked to deputise for Mr Johnson at the Monday afternoon press briefing – betrayed the mounting concern.
At about 6pm on Monday, shortly after Mr Raab assured the nation that the PM was ‘in good spirits’, Carrie Symonds received the call from her fiance’s doctors that she had been dreading.
Despite the oxygen treatment, she was told that Mr Johnson was not improving and the likelihood of him having to be put on a ventilator in intensive care was quickly growing. It was ominous news.
A study of some 1,400 patients by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre found that more than half of Covid-19 patients who are admitted to intensive care died.
Anguished, yet prevented from being by his bed, Ms Symonds wrote her husband-to-be a love letter, attaching a scan of their unborn child. Meanwhile, aides and doctors faced the logistical problem of moving the PM to the intensive care unit, which was on a different floor from his room.
A source said transferring such a high-profile patient required a ‘big operation that cannot be done quickly… so the decision was made to move him sooner rather than later’, adding: ‘We don’t want to do this stuff at 2am.’
Back in Downing Street, staff were left in stunned silence by the news.
‘It was terrifying how fast things happened. I couldn’t believe it,’ one senior official said. Having already spoken to the PM, Mr Reynolds alerted Buckingham Palace and Mr Raab was summoned to No10, where he was briefed by Cabinet Office bosses Sir Mark Sedwill and Helen MacNamara on the PM’s condition and on his new duties.
Meanwhile, the PM’s spokesman James Slack prepared a public statement and a BBC camera crew sent to film an address by a visibly shaken Mr Raab.
A conference call was arranged for the Cabinet during which Michael Gove said: ‘I think I speak for everyone when I say our thoughts and prayers are with the Prime Minister.’
An official said: ‘It was one of those nights where all there really was was prayer.’ As Mr Johnson fought for his life on Monday night, a bizarre – and undignified – public relations battle was being played out through the switchboard of St Thomas’ hospital.
‘We had the drug companies contact his doctors at the hospital in London, and they’re talking right now,’ US President Donald Trump told Fox News – wrongly, as it turned out.
The White House had contacted the hospital but, in fact, had been politely directed toward to Foreign Office rather than to Mr Johnson’s team. The Americans were not alone – China was offering drugs as well.
‘The switchboard went into meltdown,’ an NHS source said.
‘First the White House rings and offers to send drugs to treat the PM, then a series of Chinese firms call on behalf of their government also offering to send drugs.’
None of the offers was accepted. ‘We’re confident the Prime Minister is receiving the best possible care from the National Health Service,’ No10 said curtly on Tuesday morning.
While the nation reeled, Mr Johnson had a better night than expected and his temperature began to fall on Tuesday morning.
Messages of support from royalty, celebrities and thousands of public well-wishers were compiled by Ms Symonds and sent to the PM.
They included an image of NHS workers on the Nason Ward at the George Eliot Hospital in Nuneaton posing with a Get Well Soon Boris sign.
Downing Street staff endured a ‘terrible wait’ for twice daily medical updates from the hospital, fed through Ms Symonds.
‘Every day we were waiting to hear from the hospital, hoping for a bit of good news,’ said one senior official.
‘You can’t get the fear out of your head that he could take a turn for the worse.’
Slowly but surely, the PM was ‘going the right way’ during Tuesday and Wednesday, as he responded to the oxygen given to him in intensive care.
However, he endured three long nights before he was well enough to leave the unit on Thursday afternoon.
Abandoning the secrecy in which he had entered the hospital, the PM was described by one hospital insider as ‘euphoric’ and waving at doctors and nurses on his way out of ICU. Incredibly, he again joined in the applause for NHS workers at 8pm on Thursday – this time from his hospital bed.
Mr Johnson has since told friends of the ‘exemplary’ care he has received from doctors and nurses.
‘I can’t thank them enough. I owe them my life,’ he said on Friday. He is continuing his recovery this weekend, helped by home-baked chocolate brownies sent by Ms Symonds.
But he remains weak and will take some weeks to rebuild his strength. No10 aides have provided Mr Johnson with an iPad loaded with his favourite films, but he has spent most of the time sleeping or making short FaceTime video calls to Ms Symonds.
Under doctors’ orders to limit his time on the phone, he has read a thriller dug out by a nurse and stories of Tintin, his childhood favourite, sent by his worried family.
He is expected to recuperate at Chequers, the PM’s Buckinghamshire retreat, with a phased return to work, but is understood to want to oversee the decision on when – and how – to end the lockdown.
Meanwhile, finger-pointing over the timing of Mr Johnson’s admission to hospital has begun.
One friend said last night: ‘Those who care about Boris and have known him for a very long time and could say to him “Mate, you’re unwell you need to look after yourself” have been frozen out by the No10 gang.
‘And it seems they were too frightened to stand up to the PM when he needed advisers the most. ‘That can never be allowed to happen again.’