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Has ‘Long Covid’ left us leaderless? My husband's been poleaxed with the illness for eight months. I wonder if the PM is suffering similarly

Boris Johnson leaves No 10 to attend PMQs (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson leaves No 10 to attend PMQs (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

October 1, 2020   4 mins

Boris Johnson was asked point-blank this week whether he has Long Covid. The Prime Minister denied it, insisting that he’s “fit as a butcher’s dog”.

After a summer of U-turns, wholly predictable cock-ups and Covid rule exemptions with a distinctly patrician flavour, the public mood is turning against Boris Johnson. Frenemies have blamed his administration’s lack of focus, efficacy and sparkle on the terrible strain of surviving on a mere £150,000 a year. But to me the obvious explanation is far simpler: Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law, Sir Humphry Wakefield, was telling the truth in August. Boris has Long Covid.

It’s now well-established that not all Covid-19 cases are alike. For a long time, only one presentation was officially recognised: the dry cough, high fever and go-to-hospital-for-ventilation version. Let’s call it Official Covid. But scientists and doctors quickly realised there are also almost or wholly asymptomatic cases: let’s call those Mild Covid. And, as the pandemic wears on, a third presentation is becoming grimly familiar.

The Covid-19 Symptom Study has been conducted since early in the outbreak, via an app that’s been downloaded by over four million people. Participants are asked to self-report symptoms for as long as they experience them. The study has revealed that while for many Covid lasts perhaps two weeks, one in ten sufferers is ill for three weeks or longer — with some still suffering months later.

This presentation, increasingly referred to as ‘Long Covid’, may come after either Mild or Official Covid, and triggers a slew of unpredictable symptoms which last for months. It can attack different organs, cause loss of sensation in limbs, and leave sufferers exhausted, in pain and barely able to work for extended periods of time. Andrew Gwynne MP has written about his pain and chronic exhaustion while battling Long Covid. Closer to home, I’ve seen my husband struggle with it for most of this year.

When my household caught a Weird Cold back in February, I initially thought nothing of it — until I lost my sense of smell. I recovered relatively quickly, as did my husband and child, and were it not for the anosmia I wouldn’t have imagined it was more than a regular winter bug. But as my symptoms faded, my husband’s got progressively weirder.

After a fortnight of pins and needles in his hands and arms, he realised his fingers had stopped gripping properly. He became clumsy and easily disoriented. Then his left leg wouldn’t bend or take any weight. The nausea started after meals, a churning sensation throughout his body, along with acute, pervasive joint pain. Then exhaustion and brain fog, coupled with poor sleep. A fortnight later, he was forgetting ordinary nouns, and struggling to get out of bed for more than half an hour at a time.

We wondered if we should call an ambulance. Whether he’d be taken away to die in a Covid ward if we did. We had the conversation about what to do with wills and life insurance documents. It was scary. Eventually we got through to the doctors, who prescribed steroids, and after countless tests the diagnosis was ‘Guillain-Barré syndrome’, an autoimmune condition that often occurs after a viral infection.

No one at the hospital would commit to a Covid diagnosis (or even a Covid test), though one doctor did acknowledge they’d seen an unusual spike in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome recently. Meanwhile the Facebook support group for Long Covid sufferers now has 23,000 members, most reporting symptoms very similar to my husband’s. Many in the group report that their GPs refuse to accept that Long Covid is even real, despite hospital studies showing 75% of Covid sufferers treated in hospital still had symptoms months later.

There’s currently no treatment for Long Covid, other than — as the BMJ puts it — “holistic support, rest, symptomatic treatment, and gradual increase in activity”. In other words, steroids and convalescence. Over the last six months of steroids and convalescence, we’ve struggled to keep all the balls in the air — work, childcare, housework, sanity — with my husband functioning at maybe 10% of his normally sharp, focused, energetic and affectionate capacity. It’s been like having a ghost around the house: he was in constant pain and needed a stick to walk, and far too exhausted to be the hands-on dad he normally is.

Some eight months after the first symptoms, things are looking up. He’s cautiously returning to full-time work, but still low on energy, still experiencing auto-immune symptoms, still getting relapses. Looking at the gap in our national political life where you’d expect the Prime Minister to be, I’ve wondered what it would be like for someone in a position of national responsibility to go through the same illness.

For someone that reportedly dreamed as a boy of being ‘world king’, how would it feel to attain (if not full global regency) at least leadership of Britain, only to be poleaxed by an illness that refuses to go away? It’s a cruel dilemma. And given the famed Johnsonian predilection for ‘cakeism’, the most plausible response would not be stepping down for health reasons. It would be clinging to the dream while trying to convalesce in bursts, and hoping to evade any loss of confidence in his leadership by denying any health issues.

And indeed, while Johnson called Sir Humphry’s claims “absolute nonsense”, his repeated holidays over the summer have struck a strange note in the middle of a pandemic. And while the silly-season media went bananas over shots of holiday Boris in a too-loose baby sling, I was struck by how grey-faced and exhausted he looked in those photos, clearly struggling to scrape together a grimace for the camera. Sir Humphry reportedly likened Johnson to a lame horse that’s being ridden again without time to heal: “If you put a horse back to work when it’s injured it will never recover”.

But meanwhile, rumours are swirling that he’s barely present in many of the decisions now being taken by the administration. It feels increasingly like government by committee: decisions seem incoherent, contradictory, advanced by one interest then walked back by another. It’s no surprise that there’s talk of a rift between number 10 and the Treasury, and even that Sunak is on manoeuvres for a succession race.

At least, if Boris caught Covid in April and his recovery follows the usual trajectory, he ought to be getting better fairly soon. But if a week is a long time in politics, six months is an eternity; if he’s blown his stock of political capital on remaining Prime Minister while severely ill, then it might be too late to come back now. Equally, though, it’s hard to argue that adding a leadership contest and possibly a general election to Britain’s to-do list is a good idea with Brexit imminent and the pandemic still raging.

Whether the drift is a consequence of Long Covid or (as his haters would have it) simply the Johnsonian character, as far as the rest of us are concerned the net result is the same either way. At a time of ongoing national crisis, Britain is effectively leaderless.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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