In a few short hours the crisis over Boris Johnson’s health turned into a full-scale emergency last night.
The diplomatic fog that had obscured just how ill he really was lifted as it emerged he had been admitted to intensive care.
It took an intervention from our oldest ally across the Atlantic for questions to be asked about just how serious Mr Johnson’s illness was.
When Donald Trump revealed that ‘all Americans are praying’ for the Prime Minister, it soon emerged this was not typical hyperbole from the President.
At that stage, Downing Street was playing down the gravity of the Prime Minister’s plight.
The question is, had back channels to the US disclosed the true nature of Mr Johnson’s condition?
Boris Johnson participated in the ‘Clap for our Carers’ outside No11 Downing Street last week
Johnson giving an address to the public whilst looking increasingly unwell
Johnson is said to have not wanted to upstage the Queen so was hesitant to go to hopsital
It had been against all Boris’s natural instincts to bow to coronavirus: Come what may he wanted to battle through.
To start, he had ignored all the evidence: The cough that wouldn’t clear up and the temperature that did not go down.
But the moment when he recognised that common sense had to take precedence over bloody-mindedness – lest he risk compromising his long-term health – came perilously late.
Reluctantly, and on doctors’ advice delivered remotely, he agreed to admit himself to hospital. For a Prime Minister who models himself on the stoic heroism of Winston Churchill, it also meant a moment of brutal introspection.
As with the old phrase, however willing the spirit, the flesh was weak. Just how ill is our Prime Minister? Bulletins from officials insisted his stay in hospital is a mere ‘precautionary step’.
But last night a Tory source admitted the situation had clearly been more serious than officials were letting on.
‘No 10 tried to play this down but think it through: the Prime Minister was being taken to hospital in his car at 8pm on Sunday, the precise moment the Queen was making her broadcast to the nation.
‘It therefore cannot have been completely routine.’ Mr Johnson had woken on Sunday, the tenth day of his self-isolation inside the No 11 Downing Street flat, in the hope that he was finally shaking off the virus.
The reality was somewhat different, as his Cabinet colleagues could so plainly see on the Zoom video-conferencing system that has been his link with the outside world.
The meeting had already been delayed so Mr Johnson and his team could watch Keir Starmer in his debut interview as Labour leader on Andrew Marr’s BBC show.
Police officers outside of the St Thomas’ Hospital after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved to intensive care after his coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms worsened
This was Mr Johnson the pragmatist, keen to weigh up the man who will be sparring with him across the despatch box in the House of Commons when normal life resumes.
Like most people, Mr Johnson took his general wellbeing for granted, rarely being seriously ill, if at all, in his adult life.
After all, he was once proud of his fitness routine thanks to regular jogging and cycling even when he was Foreign Secretary.
But that is a distant memory and at ten weeks short of his 56th birthday, Mr Johnson is a different man, overweight and physically out of shape.
Police outside St Thomas’ Hospital where Boris Johnson has been taken into Intensive Care
No one watching the video conference was entirely comfortable with the image he projected.
Tuning in were senior colleagues including Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, Chancellor Rishi Sunak – whose flat Mr Johnson was occupying – Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Robert Jenrick the Housing Secretary and Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary and de facto deputy PM.
Also calling in to the meeting were chief of staff Sir Eddie Lister and Lee Cain, the PM’s head of communications.
It was not Mr Johnson’s finest hour. And it was clear to everyone taking part in the conversation that his health had deteriorated sharply since his dishevelled appearance early on Friday in a video released by Downing Street, when he confirmed he still had a high temperature.
That video had, in part, been issued in response to the dismay that had greeted Mr Johnson’s brief participation in the national applause for the NHS on the doorstep of No 11 on Thursday evening.
Flowers in an arrangement reading “I love NHS” outside St Thomas’ Hospital
To those inside government watching on Sunday, he looked pale and strained. Some detected breathlessness as he spoke.
The meeting that began just after 10am ran for about 45 minutes as the discussions centred on Covid-19. As a senior Whitehall source said: ‘His symptoms were persisting.
He was plainly not getting any better. In fact he’d got worse.’ In the hothouse atmosphere of Downing Street, where Mr Johnson had supervised the response to the pandemic, no one was surprised the virus had taken hold.
The narrow corridors of the Georgian townhouse, the interconnected offices and the endless comings and goings were a breeding ground for the infection. It was on March 26 that the PM first reported signs of illness.
He reported them to the chief medical officer Chris Whitty, who had been with him cheek by jowl from the moment the crisis began.
The PM was tested and began to observe one of the Government’s key directives on social distancing. By midnight, his result had come back as positive, and both Professor Whitty and Mr Hancock had gone down with the same symptoms.
While those two disappeared from Downing Street to self-isolate, Mr Johnson remained at the helm, insisting that he was still in charge. Might this have been the moment when he allowed the virus to take charge of him?
Those who have come through it say the overwhelming feature is physical exhaustion and the need to sleep. Some believe Mr Johnson simply did not recognise this, or if he did, chose not to.
Instead, as the days passed, he continued to lead the response, albeit in isolation. Meals were left on a tray – along with official papers – and the doors between the two Downing Street addresses sealed off with tables.
If that didn’t deter possible visitors, staff put posters about social distancing on the closed doors.
On the other side of the doors, the prisoner of Downing Street had no physical contact with anyone.
His pregnant girlfriend Carrie Symonds, had already left although not soon enough to avoid becoming infected.
Mr Johnson divided his time between their bedroom – the couple had been using the bigger No 11 living quarters since Mr Johnson became Prime Minister – and the ground-floor study.
Every day he continued to chair the virtual Cabinet meeting but his physical appearance was said to have worsened each time.
Even so, he still managed to bring some rigour to the meeting that followed the fiasco over testing, reading the riot act to several figures and warning civil servants to get a grip.
He has also had discussions with the Chancellor over the ruinous economic effects of the lockdown. Was he getting the sleep he surely needed?
No one is saying. Perhaps he hoped to bounce back as Matt Hancock had.
But Hancock is slim, fit and almost 15 years his junior. His busy schedule did not lessen over the weekend.
Mr Johnson had been intimately involved in the planning of the Queen’s speech to the country, an event he felt vital to national morale.
The last thing he wanted was for his personal situation to overshadow the vital importance Her Majesty would have in only the fifth such broadcast of her reign.
This, then, was the background to the moment when the Prime Minister’s coronavirus diagnosis became more serious.
Certainly, we understand, his fellow ministers were concerned enough about his appearance to raise it themselves. He was urged to seek fresh medical advice, but he ploughed on insisting it was only a minor temperature and that there was too much work to be done.
After the Cabinet meeting broke up on Sunday morning, Mr Johnson returned to the Downing Street flat. He continued to take calls and worked on official papers in his Government red boxes.
He went for a walk in the Downing Street garden. But with his health seemingly getting worse by the hour, he was coughing and finding breathing more difficult, he backed down and agreed to speak to his GP if he hadn’t improved after a siesta of an hour or two.
When there was no improvement, he spoke by video conference link to the doctor, who saw that the PM was markedly worse than when they had spoken midweek.
Mr Johnson, who by his own admission had ignored the physician’s advice to take maximum rest, was finding it more difficult to breathe.
Uppermost in the doctor’s mind was that the Prime Minister has suffered in the past from pneumonia-type symptoms – though there is no suggestion he has this condition now.
A second source said: ‘Do not underestimate the macho nature of the Westminster political Establishment. Boris will not have wanted to look weak.’ When the PM ended his call to his doctor, his mind was made up.
The GP had effectively ordered him to go to hospital or run a real risk to his health. After a minor argument with his officials, he agreed to go.
An overnight bag was packed and Mr Johnson was driven the short journey to St Thomas’, accompanied by his bodyguards.
As one of our sources said: ‘It’s been admirable the way he’s wanted to carry on with the job, leading from the front, and making sure he is on top of every decision. But in the end he’s not done his health any good. He has to give in to the virus and rest.’