Yes, thousands are suffering with coronavirus – but Boris Johnson’s is still a special case

In our present set-up, the role the prime minister fulfils is not easily replaced by an acting stand-in. It feels unsatisfactory because it is. This is a dangerous moment for all of us

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 07 April 2020 11:01 BST
Boris Johnson received oxygen but is not on ventilator in intensive care, Michael Gove says

In one sense Boris Johnson is just one of the very many people currently suffering, grievously so, from the terrible disease of Covid-19. Many others are on intensive care wards just like he; they too have families and loved ones. They too deserve best wishes and prayers for a speedy recovery - and they have them, gladly given.

Does the prime minister's case deserve special treatment? Yes, simply because of the position he holds.

It seems obvious that his fate is, to some extent at any rate, inextricably tied to that of the nation, and therefore to many other lives too. The decisions he takes, and the leadership he offers, are vital.

In our present set-up, the role he fulfils is not easily replaced by an acting stand-in. It feels unsatisfactory because it is. It is thus a dangerous moment for all of us. It would be much better all round if Johnson did indeed make that quick return to work. It would be a happy day.

It would also be a happy day for his family and specially his pregnant fiancee Carrie Symonds, who is sometimes overlooked. Feeling some sympathy for them doesn’t turn you into a Conservative, and nor does it mean you feel any less compassion for the bus drivers, the homeless or the care home workers who also need oxygen at St Thomas' Hospital.

Common humanity is not a zero sum game. You have to be pretty warped to be like the Twitter user I noticed who suggested they stick “DNR” on Johnson’s bed. But that's how toxic social media can be - or, rather, how vindictive some people can be.

That is not to say we shouldn’t criticise what Johnson does, or not find fault with things that should go better. That’s the job of politicians, the media and the voters. It’s democracy, and it need not be suspended by any war.

Good policy making comes from debate and argument and disclosed facts. It is not “helpful” or “constructive” for journalists to ignore shortages of vital equipment or forget about whether the lock down arrived too late or if it is now going on for too long.

Supporting the government and acknowledging the hard work of ministers and officials is not the same as agreeing with everything they do in the name of national unity. That is why we have the concept of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

That is why we want Boris Johnson back in good health: so we can feel free to variously love, hate, praise, insult and berate him. And, rightly, we can’t do any of that now.

Get well soon, Boris; we miss you.

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