It was one of the most fraught moments of the pandemic as the nation waited for news of its Prime Minister, who was battling for his life in hospital after contracting Covid. Now, for the first time, it can be revealed just how much Boris Johnson feared for his health when he learned doctors were considering puncturing a hole in his neck to help him breathe.
The procedure – called a tracheostomy – was Mr Johnson’s great fear, his former communications chief Guto Harri reveals.
Until that point, Mr Johnson had believed that he would pull through because of his ‘childlike’ trust in doctors, Mr Harri says in his Global Player podcast Unprecedented. But he began to realise how serious his condition was when medics started discussing his ‘really very dangerous’ oxygen levels and the prospect of making the surgical opening into his windpipe.
Mr Johnson was struck down by Covid and hospitalised for a week in April 2020, just after lockdown had been imposed.
His shocked colleagues in No 10 continued to try to shepherd the country through the pandemic while their boss battled the disease, not knowing whether or not he would survive.
Groggy: Boris Johnson four days before going into hospital after contracting Covid
Mr Johnson offered the personal insight into his fears as Mr Harri prepared him for a television interview with fellow Tory MP Esther McVey in which he planned to open up about his experience. But when the cameras started rolling, Mr Johnson decided not to relive the ordeal.
Recalling their preparation for the interview, Mr Harri said on his podcast: ‘I asked him whether he thought he was actually going to die. And he said he didn’t. He never really thought that because of what he called a childlike faith in doctors.
‘But he could tell that the staff at the hospital were worried, and he was very conscious that they kept talking about his oxygen levels that were going down and down to levels where it was really very dangerous.
‘One of the last things he kept thinking was, “Please, please don’t say tracheostomy”,’ he said.
‘I don’t think any of us would like to be on the receiving end of a tracheostomy. It sounds deeply unpleasant and involves having a hole punctured in your throat, I think just under the Adam’s apple to help you breathe.
‘But apart from being unpleasant, it’s also a sign that things are really serious, because they do it as an emergency procedure to allow you to breathe because that’s the only way. So, I think for him, it was confirmation of just how bad things had become that they were actually contemplating something like this.’
In a powerful insight into the effect the situation had on Downing Street staff, Mr Harri revealed that no one really knew whether or not he’d survive. ‘This was a critical moment inside No 10, a turning point if you like. The Prime Minister being taken away to hospital, in a wheelchair, with Covid, at a time when we understood a lot less about Covid and the potential cures in such a situation than we do today,’ he said.
‘No one in No 10 really knew how this would play out, how long he’d be away, whether he’d be well enough to perform his role, whether he’d even survive, and what would happen next.’
Boris Johnson was taken to the intensive care unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in central London
Before realising he had contracted the coronavirus, Mr Johnson had been getting ‘groggier and groggier’ – but had refused to get tested because he didn’t want to look like he was getting preferential treatment at a time when few tests were available.
After being urged by the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, to take a test, he discovered he had the disease.
He got to the point where he could not walk up the stairs to his flat above No 11 Downing Street and had to move into a suite of offices where he was handed food and documents through the door. His wife Carrie – who was heavily pregnant with their first child Wilf at the time – moved out.
Mr Harri recalls: ‘In the press and media at the time, the dominant narrative was that Boris Johnson was essentially fine, that the medical interventions were pretty much precautionary.
‘No 10, understandably, was trying to play the whole thing down. They didn’t want to panic the public who were already anxious about the pandemic, but in reality, he was pretty ill and deteriorating. He kept deteriorating until in the end, he was basically put in a wheelchair and wheeled into an ambulance to be taken to hospital. And he said, at that time, he felt completely decrepit.’
After seven days, he was discharged from hospital to recover at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country retreat.
‘From the experience, he says he sympathises with anyone who’s been in intensive care. It’s a big thing. He said he felt wasted, beaten up, absolutely exhausted,’ Mr Harri said. ‘It took him weeks to get strong again, he motored through a load of novels to do that, while resting at Chequers.’
Mr Johnson has previously said that during his dramatic stay in intensive care, plans were drawn up on how to announce his death.
He also admitted he had worked throughout the early stage of his illness and not taken the disease seriously enough, before being ‘forced’ to go to hospital on the advice of doctors.
Mr Johnson tested positive for the virus in late March and went into isolation at his flat in 11 Downing Street for an initial period of seven days. By the time he ended up in St Thomas’ Hospital, across the River Thames from the Palace of Westminster, he needed ‘litres and litres’ of oxygen, which was delivered by a tube fitted under his nose. The public were told he had persistent symptoms, including a temperature.
The tube was then switched to a large face mask and, when his condition worsened, Mr Johnson was moved into intensive care, with doctors having to decide whether to put him into an induced coma and on to a ventilator. Despite those initial fears, medics ultimately decided against it.
Just before he was transferred into intensive care, Mr Johnson called the then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab from his bed to ask him ‘to deputise for him where necessary’.
In an interview with The Sun on Sunday afterwards, Mr Johnson said: ‘To be honest, the doctors had all sorts of plans for what to do if things went badly wrong. I was not in particularly brilliant shape because the oxygen levels in my blood kept going down.
‘But it was thanks to some wonderful, wonderful nursing that I made it. They really did it and they made a huge difference.’
He said doctors faced a ’50-50′ decision on whether to put him on a ventilator, but he said that despite the bad signs, he never doubted he would pull through, explaining: ‘It would be wrong to say that at any stage I thought: “Oh my goodness, this is it. “Some terrible buoyancy within me kept convincing me that everything would almost certainly be all right in the end. But I was just frustrated. I remember seeing a lot of other victims, both going in and going out of intensive care.
‘I couldn’t see why I wasn’t getting better. I was just incredibly frustrated because the bloody indicators kept going in the wrong direction and I thought, “There’s no medicine for this thing and there’s no cure.”‘
Boris Johnson (pictured with wife Carrie) said ‘it was thanks to some wonderful, wonderful nursing that I made it’
But then, ‘after three nights, thanks to the miraculous work of the medical team, I was returned to the general ward without the need of ventilation.’ Mr Johnson admitted he was a ‘very lucky man’ to recover in time to see the birth of his son.
The first three episodes of Mr Harri’s political memoir podcast Unprecedented are available on Global Player now. Episode 4, which explores the impact of the Covid pandemic on No 10, will be released on Thursday.
In the first episode, Mr Harri revealed that Mr Johnson ‘squared up’ to the King – then the Prince of Wales – over a speech the Royal wanted to make about slavery, after he had criticised the Government’s approach to small boats crossing the Channel with illegal migrants.
He said: ‘Boris squared up, confronted him and warned him, “I’d be careful,” he said, “or you’ll end up having to sell the Duchy of Cornwall to pay reparations for those who built it.” Relations never fully recovered.’
A spokesman for the former Prime Minister said: ‘Boris Johnson had no involvement in this podcast and does not recognise its contents.’
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