United Kingdom

SARAH VINE: Boris Johnson's coronavirus battle has brought the nation together

Every crisis has its flashpoint. For me — as, I suspect for many others — the news on Monday evening that the Prime Minister was being treated in intensive care for Covid-19 felt like one such moment. Or, as my teenage son put it: ‘This thing just got real.’

It came as much of a surprise to members of the Cabinet as to the wider public. Only a few days earlier Boris had been participating as normal — albeit somewhat wheezily — in regular video conferences, holed up in isolation at No. 11.

And then, in the space of just a few short hours — a feature, as we are starting to discover, with this wretched virus — the situation changed dramatically.

That the Prime Minister has been so badly affected by this disease is, in many ways, symbolic of the huge challenge we all face.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pictured above days before being admitted to hospital. He is seen above clapping for carers on April 2

There was a heavy police presence at St Thomas' Hospital on Westminster Bridge today where Mr Johnson remains in intensive care

No one person’s life is more valuable than another’s, of course: Prime Minister or pauper, there can be no difference in value between human souls, and I do not for one second wish to diminish the suffering of others who have already succumbed to this horrible illness.

Nevertheless, the fact that the democratically-elected leader of our country now finds himself in intensive care cannot help but make all of us feel more vulnerable.

It’s all the more striking not just because of his uniquely important position as leader of our country but also because Boris has always been such a larger-than-life presence; such a bear of a man, personally and politically.

I’ve seen him tear up a dance floor to Abba at a friend’s birthday party, watched him tackle David Cameron at football on the back lawn at Chequers (you’ve never witnessed competitiveness like it) and waved him off on his bicycle after many a lively dinner.

He is a man of great passions and great intellect, someone who is not afraid to admit his own failings — or, for that matter, those of others. In all my dealings with him I’ve always found him to be one of life’s can-doers, a glass‑half-full sort of person, the kind who cannot see a challenge without immediately wanting to wrestle it to the ground — but who is always, ultimately, magnanimous in victory.

Boris Johnson (pictured as his health worsened on April 3) 

That, I think, is why the seriousness of his condition has hit so hard. For such an effusive, ebullient man, such a vibrant lifeforce, to be brought down by the virus only serves to bring home the vicious and indiscriminate nature of the threat to all of us.

If anyone had suggested even a month ago that a man like Boris might have belonged to the ‘vulnerable’ category of patients, they would have been laughed out of town. Boris? Surely the last person anyone would need to worry about.

Theresa May, with her type 1 diabetes, yes; Jeremy Corbyn, of an age, maybe. But bouncing, Bordeaux-loving, bon viveur Boris? Never! And yet here we are. That enthusiastic, irrepressible voice has, for now, been silenced. It is a sobering, sombre moment.

But as hard as it is for all of us to deal with the news, as much as it represents a collective moment of uncertainty and anguish, it is for Boris’s nearest and dearest even more frightening.

One thinks, of course, of his pregnant fiancee, Carrie Symonds, now well into her third trimester and herself suffering coronavirus symptoms, self-isolating and barred from seeing him. But also of his former wife Marina and their children, Lara, 26, Milo, 24, Cassia, 22, and Theodore, 20.

Carrie Symonds is self isolating with the couple's rescue dog Dilyn (pictured together on March 27) 

One can hardly begin to imagine what complex emotions they must all be experiencing as they, like the rest of us, wait for news.

For Carrie especially, the difficulty of her situation is heartbreaking. Having fought so hard for their relationship, having endured so many slurs and slights, having suffered the opprobrium and judgmental attitudes of Boris’s many enemies, to find herself unable to be within touching distance of the man she loves and the father of her unborn baby must be hell. No one deserves that.

Of course, Carrie is a tough cookie — we know that not least because of her brave and fearless stance on John Worboys, the black cab rapist she helped keep behind bars by waiving her right to anonymity and testifying against him as a victim. But she is also a young woman who is pregnant for the first time, alone and isolated and understandably fearful for her future and that of her child.

Pregnant Carrie cannot see her fiance Boris, who is seriously ill with coronavirus (pictured together on March 9 at Westminster Abbey)

Just as Boris’s predicament echoes that of many Covid-19 patients, the situation of his family mirrors that of countless other couples and families affected by this disease.

In my own case, for example, our daughter Beatrice came down with a high fever and assorted Covid-19 symptoms on Sunday. She seems perfectly fine now (oh, blissful youth), but, as a precaution, the rest of us are now self-isolating, including my husband.

It’s unlikely, in my view, that he will have caught it from her — being a typical teenager, she spends most of her time in voluntary self-isolation in her bedroom.

On the rare occasions that she does emerge, she studiously avoids all contact with either of us for fear of eliciting unwanted and embarrassing displays of affection. Fellow parents of teenagers will know what I’m talking about. Still, better safe than sorry.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that there is something about Boris’s predicament and that of his family that brings us, as a nation of strangers, closer together. Boris is us, and we are Boris.

It’s a connection that feels terrifyingly real. And it brings true meaning to that oft-overused political mantra, ‘we are all in this together’. That to beat this nightmare disease, we have to act as one, to join forces as a wider community, to set aside our differences — of religion, politics, opinion — in pursuit of a greater good.

Some things just transcend all others, and Covid-19 is one of them. It is a universally unifying experience.

When the 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, was shot and seriously wounded by fantasist John Hinckley in 1981, he removed his oxygen mask and quipped to the trauma team: ‘I hope you are all Republicans.’ To which the leading surgeon, a committed Democrat, replied: ‘Today, Mr President, we are all Republicans.’

It is that generous-minded, all‑forgiving spirit that is required now. That ability to set aside petty differences, to shelve all ideology, all preconception, in the name of compassion and the greater good. And I have no doubt whatsoever that, in homes and hospitals up and down the country, that spirit prevails.

For others, it may not come so easily. There are many out there whose political hatred still blinds them to the suffering of those they disagree with, whose anger and vitriol render them immune to compassion. To you I say, I wish you well, nonetheless. If ever there were a time to press the reset button, this is it.

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