Wishing Johnson well while considering health secrets of leaders

Boris Johnson deserves all our best wishes even if normally they would be delivered through gritted teeth.

To have our prime minister in intensive care with coronavirus is shocking and worrying. Johnson is in St Thomas’s Hospital, over the Thames from Westminster, and hopefully he will be well again soon and back to his annoying old self.

The prime minister’s present vulnerability reminds us of the politics of health, how a leader’s wellbeing can be built up or exaggerated to bolster their image.

This morning cabinet minister Michael Gove was on the BBC Today programme saying that Johnson, 55, had been given oxygen but not put on a ventilator.

Gove and presenter Nick Robinson animatedly praised the prime minister’s “zest for life”, at which point, while still wishing him well, I turned off the radio.

Beforehand, others discussed Johnson’s great good health, how he went running, could beat anyone at tennis and so on. The Times report today describes Johnson as being reasonably fit, adding that he plays tennis regularly and while at No 10 follows online video workouts mixing yoga, Pilates and aerobics.

The Times adds that he has given up jogging because of problems with his knees and is troubled by his weight, said to have reached 16-and-half stone a little over two years ago, in the obese category as he is not particularly tall.

It was always possible to wonder at the running as he didn’t look like a natural, and he did seem to like running whenever photographers were around.

Still, trying to keep fit isn’t easy, as various muscles and tendons in my old jogging legs can testify.

The political side comes from having to create myths about the fitness of our leaders. The orange flab mountain Donald Trump has made great play of his personal fitness, as proclaimed by his doctor.

Before he became president his personal physical, Dr Harold Bornstein, wrote: “If elected, Mr Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” A statement so bold it might almost have been dictated by Trump himself – which, according to reports three years later, is exactly what happened.

Trump proudly boasts about his health while looking, it must be said, decidedly tubby. Photographs of him playing/cheating at golf always show him looking very rotund for someone purportedly so healthy.

In the past Johnson’s illness may well have been kept from us, but such state secrecy over delicate matters of health is no longer possible. Those sort of secrets are just harder to keep.

Winston Churchill had various health problems and assorted mishaps, including burning his hand when accidentally placing a lit cigar in a box of matches.

Churchill also suffered a tooth abscess in 1941, a heart attack while staying at the White House and pneumonia in 1943, and a severe stroke when a peacetime prime minister in 1953 that saw him off work for four months.

There has always been much debate about Churchill’s health and about habits that now seem remarkably hazardous, yet he lived until he was 90, so perhaps he wins that argument.

When he arrived at the White House in 1941, Churchill, then 67, made eccentric demands according to the Smithsonian magazine: “I must have a tumbler of sherry in my room before breakfast, a couple of glasses of scotch and soda before lunch and French champagne, and 90-year-old brandy before I go to sleep at night.”

Boris Johnson, according Michael Gove, is receiving “the very best medical care” – as, of course, is everyone blighted by this virus. He is receiving the same sort of high care provided to all virus patients by the NHS. Perhaps he will have time, when he recovers, to take to task Charles Moore, who yesterday wrote in Johnson’s old newspaper the Daily Telegraph: “The inflexibility of our lumbering NHS is why the country has had to be shut down.”

Blaming the NHS for the lockdown is the sort of weird logic proudly flourished by a Daily Telegraph columnist. But, of course, as a former inhabitant of that role, Johnson knows that all too well.

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