British PM Boris Johnson 'responding to treatment' for COVID-19

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent a second night in intensive care and was in stable condition on Wednesday after receiving oxygen support for COVID-19 complications, raising questions about how key decisions would be taken in his absence.

Officials have said prime minister has received oxygen treatments

Police officers stand outside St. Thomas' hospital on Wednesday in central London, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains in intensive care as his coronavirus symptoms persist. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's condition is improving and he is able to sit up in bed and engage with clinical staff, Finance Minister Rishi Sunak said on Wednesday as Johnson remained in intensive care battling COVID-19.

Johnson, who tested positive nearly two weeks ago, was admitted to St. Thomas' Hospital on Sunday evening with a persistent high temperature and cough, but his condition deteriorated and he was brought to an intensive care unit on Monday evening. The hospital is a short drive from 10 Downing Street.

The 55-year-old British leader has received oxygen support but was not put on a ventilator and his designated deputy, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, said he would soon be back at the helm as the world faces one of its gravest public health crises in a century.

"The latest from the hospital is that the prime minister remains in intensive care where his condition is improving. I can also tell you that he has been sitting up in bed and been engaging positively with the clinical team," Sunak said at a daily government coronavirus news conference.

Earlier, Downing Street said that Johnson was not working, but was able to contact people if needed.

"The prime minister remains clinically stable and is responding to treatment. He is in good spirits," Johnson's spokesperson said, similar to what Downing Street has been saying over the past two days.

The spokesperson declined to provide further details of Johnson's treatment, saying Wednesday's update "was given to us by St. Thomas' Hospital and it contains all of the information which the PM's medical team considers to be clinically relevant."

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is taking charge of the government's response to the coronavirus crisis after Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to intensive care Monday, arrives at Downing Street on Wednesday. (Victoria Jones/The Associated Press)

As Johnson battled the novel coronavirus in hospital, the United Kingdom was entering what scientists said was the deadliest phase of the outbreak and considering the question of when to lift the lockdown.

Inside the government, ministers were debating how long the world's fifth-largest economy could afford to be shut down, and the long-term implications of one of the most stringent set of emergency controls in peacetime history.

Not ready to lift shutdown

The United Kingdom's total hospital deaths from COVID-19 rose by a record 938 to 7,097 as of 4 p.m. local time on April 7, the latest publicly available death toll for a population of around 68 million.

Britain was in no position to lift the shutdown as the peak of the outbreak was still more than a week away, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said.

"We are nowhere near lifting the lockdown," Khan said.

Few examples of leaders being ill

Johnson was breathing without any assistance and had not required respiratory support, said Raab, who said the prime minister, whom he described as "a fighter," remained in charge.

There are few precedents in British history of a prime minister being incapacitated at a time of major crisis, though Winston Churchill suffered a stroke while in office in 1953 and Tony Blair twice underwent heart treatment in the 2000s.

Johnson has delegated some authority to Raab, who was appointed foreign minister less than a year ago, though any major decisions — such as when to lift the lockdown — would in effect need the blessing of Johnson's cabinet.

WATCH | Can COVID-19 be spread by talking?

We know COVID-19 can be spread by someone coughing or sneezing, but what about by simply talking? Andrew Chang explains how it can happen.   0:57

Britain's uncodified constitution — an unwieldy collection of sometimes ancient and contradictory precedents — offers no clear, formal Plan B. In essence, it is the prime minister's call and, if he is incapacitated, then up to cabinet to decide.

Raab said ministers had "very clear directions, very clear instructions" from Johnson, but it was not clear what would happen if crucial decisions needed to be made that strayed from the approved plan.

Michael Heseltine, who served as deputy prime minister to John Major in the 1990s, told the Telegraph Raab's position needed to be clarified.

Former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind said most major decisions over the coronavirus strategy had been taken with the important exception of whether or not to ease the lockdown, a call that will need to be made in the next week or soon after.

'Not just a medical judgment'

"That is not just a medical judgment. It has to be a balance between the medical considerations and the consequences of leaving the whole economy shut down," Rifkind told BBC TV.

While such a decision would be made by cabinet even if Johnson were not unwell, he said Britain's prime minister had authority and sway as the "primus inter pares," Latin for "first among equals."

"He very often can steer the direction in a particular way. Dominic Raab doesn't have the authority nor would he claim it," Rifkind said.

With files from The Associated Press

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.