With PM Johnson ill, coronavirus strikes at heart of British politics – National Post
LONDON — Hours after Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed on Friday he had the coronavirus, his health minister said he did too, and England’s chief medical officer announced he also had symptoms.
It isn’t a huge surprise.
There can be no way to know if they infected each other or caught the illness from another person, or different people. But the three men had met a handful of times in person over the previous 10 days, according to Johnson’s official diary, to formulate Britain’s response to the outbreak.
On Tuesday of last week, when most ministers video-conferenced into a cabinet meeting, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and chief medical officer Chris Whitty sat in the room with Johnson.
Whitty had also stood alongside the prime minister at three of the 11 news conferences on the coronavirus since March 16.
Now the question on the lips of many at Downing Street and beyond is: how many other people did the UK prime minister come into contact with before testing positive?
Asked about whether those who became ill believed they had done so from meeting Johnson, a government source noted that scientists say it takes around five days from transmission to developing symptoms so people who became ill at the same time “almost certainly” did not give it to one another.
Johnson is the first world leader to announce he is sick with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But other administrations have faced similar questions.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump say they have tested negative for coronavirus, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went into self-isolation earlier this month after his wife tested positive.
Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, has tested positive, as have several members of the U.S. Congress.
For politicians, who can meet hundreds of people every day, the coronavirus crisis requires a balance between being seen to lead their people while also keeping a safe distance.
Johnson’s spokesman, asked repeatedly about the prime minister’s contacts with other people, told reporters on Friday the prime minister had not been in close proximity with anyone “from the moment he had symptoms.”
According to Johnson’s statement, that would mean Thursday of last week. And according to his public agenda, Johnson had scaled back in-person meetings, in accordance with the UK’s wider lockdown rules, from Monday March 23.
Yet scientists say the virus’ incubation period is estimated at between one and 14 days, and there have been anecdotal accounts of people spreading the disease without having symptoms.
And despite the scaling back, Johnson still met Whitty in person or via videolink at least eight times in the last two weeks and Hancock around nine, according to his diary, to plot Britain’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Meetings were also held with other staff, according to two sources close to the prime minister. One Downing Street source said that 75 of the 200 staff who usually work at Number 10 — an approximately 100-room town house -– are still working there in separate rather than overlapping shifts to reduce the risk of infection.
Johnson also had regular in-person news conferences with journalists at Downing Street until March 24, when he switched to ones where the journalists attended by video link. Some journalists who attended the in-person conferences have said via social media or have told colleagues that they are now self-isolating.
“Here in Number 10 we have been observing the advice … we have wherever possible been using video conferencing, you’ll have seen the prime minister ensuring he is a safe distance from colleagues when he is taking part in press conferences,” Johnson’s spokesman said on Friday.
The prime minister also ventured beyond Downing Street last week. On Wednesday, a day before his positive test, Johnson answered questions at a weekly session in parliament’s House of Commons chamber.
In the live video, Johnson is seen speaking with several lawmakers. Minister for Scotland Alister Jack, who sat next to Johnson before the session, said on Saturday he had developed a temperature and a cough and was now working from home in isolation.
Asked whether Jack believed suggestions he may have become ill in parliament that day, the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland declined to comment, saying it had nothing to add to Saturday’s statement.
At first, Britain’s response to the spread of the virus was not as stringent as in other countries. It was only at the beginning of the week from March 16 that the UK position began changing – and Johnson’s rhythm too.
In addition to more video-conferences, audiences with Queen Elizabeth — usually held weekly – have been held by telephone for the last two weeks, according to Johnson’s spokesman.
Schools across the UK were closed from March 20, and the prime minister announced three days later that all shops – except for the most essential ones – would be closed.
On Friday, just five hours after Johnson said he had tested positive for coronavirus, Whitty wrote on Twitter that “after experiencing symptoms compatible with COVID-19 last night … I will be self-isolating at home for the next seven days.” He said he would continue to advise the government.
The same day, Hancock said he had also tested positive and was self-isolating at home with mild symptoms. He has since been active on Twitter, but has not commented on his condition.
The health ministry said on Sunday it could offer no update on the conditions of Hancock or Whitty.
Apart from Hancock and Whitty, the other person who has spent the most time working on the British government’s response is the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance.
Whitty, Johnson and Vallance were seen so often at news conferences together in the second and third weeks of March that they were called the “three amigos” in reference to a 1986 comedy with Steve Martin.
After Johnson made his announcement, Vallance tweeted that he had no symptoms. Vallance could not be reached for comment. (Reporting by Elizabeth Piper Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan Editing by Alessandra Galloni and Frances Kerry)
No, Politics Won't Take a Break for the Virus – POLITICO
“This is unbelievable!” yelled Maine’s Susan Collins earlier this week when she was temporarily blocked from speaking on the Senate floor about the massive stimulus bill.
“Hopefully,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, “some adults will show up on the other side of the room and understand the gravity of the situation.”
Across the aisle, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the most centrist of all Senate Democrats, denounced Republican proposals for being “more focused on the big corporations and the health of Wall Street than we are on the health care of the people in rural America and Main Street.”
Trump, for his part, reportedly wants to establish himself in the crisis as a “wartime president,” above the fray, but can’t resist stopping to tweak his own rivals, from Joe Biden to Mitt Romney.
Is this the way the U.S. government is supposed to behave in the face of a grave threat to the nation—spending days in partisan rancor before finally hammering out desperately needed legislation in the dead of night? In a national crisis, isn’t politics as usual supposed to be put on hold?
It might be tempting to invoke the notion of “good old days,” when politics stopped at the water’s edge, when an endangered nation put political differences aside for the sake of national unity. But those yearnings should be put on hold. More often than not, the story of America is one where political divisions don’t really hit the pause button—even in the face of war, disaster or economic catastrophe. For every example of a move toward unity in a crisis, there’s a countervailing example, or two or three, where political divisions run deep and wide, and in some cases, deeper and wider. Counterintuitive though it might seem, it may be a sign of civic strength that these divisions, bitter as they sometimes are, can be openly expressed even at a time of peril.
Even in crises that have seemingly called for putting politics aside, unity has come, when it has, only briefly—and the nation still pulled through on the other end. Yes, it’s true that in the middle of the Civil War, as a gesture of national unity, President Abraham Lincoln put a Democrat—Tennessee’s military governor and former senator, Andrew Johnson—on his ticket when he ran for reelection in 1864. (Given Johnson’s disastrous white supremacist presidency, that might have been Lincoln’s worst decision ever).
But that election was awash in party strife, even beyond the obvious bloody division between North and South. Many Northerners, anxious for a quick end to the war, embraced the candidacy of George McClellan, the Union general whom Lincoln had fired for timidity. At the same time, many Republicans opposed Lincoln’s half-hearted approach to slavery—so much so they nominated John Fremont for the presidency (Fremont ultimately declined to run). Overall, the mood of the nation was sufficiently sour that Lincoln himself assumed he would lose reelection; in the end it was military victories that helped win Lincoln a landslide, and with it the appearance of national unity.
Yes, Franklin D. Roosevelt looked for bipartisan support in 1940 as he prodded a reluctant nation to mobilize and to assist Great Britain in the face of a relentless Nazi bombing campaign. He named Herbert Hoover’s secretary of State, Henry Stimson, as Secretary of War, and Frank Knox—the GOP vice presidential candidate in 1936—as Secretary of the Navy. And his 1940 foe, Wendell Willkie, was a supporter of mobilization and gave FDR crucial support in launching peacetime selective service.
But having Willkie there didn’t keep the White House from coming under heavy fire from the strong isolationist wing of the GOP. At the end of October, a Republican radio broadcast proclaimed: “when your boy is dying on some battlefield in Europe, and he’s crying out ‘Mother! Mother!—don’t blame President Franklin D. Roosevelt because he sent your boy to war—blame yourself, because you sent Franklin D. Roosevelt back to the White House!”
Surely, though, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the nation came together, right? Well, the America First Committee, Charles Lindbergh’s platform for isolationism, disbanded quickly, and only one member of Congress voted against the declaration of war. But less than a year later, Republicans gained in the 1942 midterms by campaigning against America’s wartime president, capitalizing on the gloomy news from the war and from domestic discontent over the heavy hand of government. That November, Republicans gained 47 seats in the House and nine in the Senate.
The partisan fires raged much hotter in the 1950 midterms, just months after U.S. forces began fighting in Korea. Sen. Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska said of President Harry Truman, “The blood of our boys in Korea is on his shoulders, and no one else.” The Republican National Committee built its midterm campaign around Democratic “blundering” in Korea. And the Republicans were already campaigning against the Truman administration for its indifference to—if not outright sympathy with—Communists. Earlier that year, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy had charged in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that there were some 200 “known Communists” in the State Department. “Who lost China?” became a theme of Republican campaign rhetoric, and the Republican Party wound up winning 28 House seats and five Senate seats that year. And two years later, as the Korean War sunk into quagmire, the entire 1952 GOP campaign was encapsulated as “K1C2” slogan: “Korea, Corruption, and Communism.”
Vietnam, of course, is remembered as the war that split the nation, but the discontent was brewing well before 1968. As early as October 1965, Ronald Reagan, preparing to launch his campaign for governor of California, was arguing from the right that Lyndon Johnson wasn’t pushing hard enough. “We should declare war on North Vietnam. We could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas,” Reagan said. At the same time, opposition to the war was growing within the Democratic Party. By 1966, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman William Fulbright was holding hearings questioning the rationale for the war, and Senator Robert Kennedy, among other Democrats, was publicly expressing doubts about the war. By 1968, it had effectively split the party.
As for the Republicans: Just before the November election, the campaign of Republican nominee Richard Nixon surreptitiously persuaded South Vietnam’s leaders not to agree to an election eve peace proposal—not just undermining the current president, but leading Republicans like George Will, among others, to subsequently label it “treason.”
If you’re looking for examples of genuine unity, you can point to the atmosphere after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when, as in the days just after Pearl Harbor, there was a real sense of patriotic fervor. That sense even survived the initial decision by the Bush Administration to invade Iraq—the House approved the use of force by a 296-133 margin and the Senate vote was 77-23. But, as with Korea and Vietnam, the setbacks in the field took a political toll. What helped save Bush’s re-election was a distinctly unsubtle campaign suggesting that a John Kerry presidency would subject the nation to another terrorist attack.
You might also look at who happened at the end of the 2008 campaign, in the wake of the financial meltdown. Both major party nominees—John McCain and Barack Obama—joined President George W. Bush and others at a white House meeting to shape a common response. But even with the entire global economic structure at risk, politics was never far from center stage. When the $700 billion measure came to the House floor, two-thirds of Republicans voted against it, sending the proposal down to defeat. Only after the stock market suffered its biggest drop in history did the House reverse itself four days later. President Obama fared a little better in putting together his own plan for economic recovery. His $838 billion stimulus plan won only three GOP votes in the Senate, despite the inclusion of a large chunk of tax cuts. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said: “It’s full of waste” and “we’re taking an enormous risk, an enormous risk, with other people’s money.”
So why should anyone express surprise or dismay at a fight over what to do about what might be the most dangerous crisis in our history? The arguments in the Senate over the bailouts and rescue packages reflect deep ideological divisions about where to direct resources, whether to aim them at afflicted companies or workers; other debates revolve around everything from abortion policy to climate change to health care. And is anyone really surprised that Democrats might not embrace the idea of half a trillion dollars to be dispensed at the discretion of the most polarizing president in history, or seek to block him and his family from profiting from the massive rescue package?
It says something about the staying power of America’s political institutions that they can sustain fierce partisan and ideological arguments even while the nation is under siege. And even when a free society puts aside the mechanisms of political conflict, they do not remain neglected for long. When Winston Churchill became prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1940, he quickly formed a broad coalition government, which included Clement Atlee, leader of the Labour Party. There were no elections at all until after V-E day, five years later. There, you might say, that is what national unity looks like. But barely two months after V-E day, the British people pushed Churchill out of office in a landslide.
As soon as the bombs stopped falling, politics emerged as strong as ever. And that rapid resumption of partisan battle was as powerful a demonstration as any that one of the foundations of free society—open, freewheeling, raucous debate—was alive and well. Here at home, the same clashes in the Senate that triggered angry words may well have produced a piece of legislation a lot better than one that had been rushed to passage without contentious unity. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, sometimes—even in crisis—unity asks too much.
It's Trump's coronavirus response now, to his political profit or peril – NBCNews.com
WASHINGTON — For President Donald Trump, the spring of 2020 was supposed to be a time for trumpeting the economy, scaring voters about a Joe Biden presidency, and trying to get some foreign policy wins.
But with the world consumed by the threat of the coronavirus, the president has increasingly been focused on using to his advantage the crisis that he initially tried to downplay. He’s branded the federal response as his own, with his campaign echoing his moves — a high risk, high reward proposition, Republican strategists say.
Trump has reversed course on making Vice President Mike Pence the public face of the response, instead taking center stage himself in daily press briefings, which have had the viewership of a major sporting event. He has branded the administration’s response as his own, not that of the public health experts, as with a direct mail piece sent out this week by the Centers for Disease Control promoting “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America.
On Saturday, with most Americans confined at home, Trump traveled on Air Force One to Norfolk, Virginia for a photo opportunity and ceremony for a Navy hospital ship heading to New York.
With the virus expected to continue to play a dominant role in the American psyche over at least the next several months, it stands to be the number one issue shaping voters’ decision in November with their choice heavily influenced by how they feel Trump handled the response, campaign advisers said.
“The president’s re-elect does not matter,” said one White House aide. “You could raise $100 billion, you could run a Mike Bloomberg-style campaign and it would not matter because this [coronavirus situation] is literally all anyone is talking about. All eyes are focused on the president and the White House.”
It’s a stark contrast to where Trump and his allies were less than two months ago, when he was coming off his impeachment acquittal with record approval numbers and purging his administration of perceived enemies. He was holding near-weekly political rallies where he painted Democrats as socialists who would destroy the U.S. economy, arguing that voters had no choice but to vote for him or their 401-K savings would tumble.
The stock market, and the election-year economy itself, have since taken a massive coronavirus-powered hit. Now, aides feel there is no playbook or historic precedent to guide their strategy, with one White House staffer describing it to colleagues as “flying the airplane while putting it together.” It’s the same analogy staffers used to describe Trump’s 2016 presidential bid.
As Trump pushed this week for the country to get back to regular business as soon as possible, he acknowledged the link to his re-election prospects, accusing the media in a tweet of “trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success.”
Trump’s campaign has been trying to use the crisis to play up the president’s leadership, promoting his policy moves, repeating his talking points, and pushing back against criticism on social media and in emails to supporters.
“Our primary focus has been to amplify what the president is doing and that he is clearly doing the job he was elected to do,” said campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh.
On March 21, campaign volunteers made 1.5 million phone calls to voters touting the steps Trump has been taking to respond to the pandemic, encouraging them to practice good hygiene and social distancing and directing them to the government website coronavirus.gov, which leads people to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Murtaugh.
At the same time, the campaign has been throwing blows at Biden and the media in press releases, emails to supporters and on social media. But while Democratic Super PACs have been running millions of dollars in ads attacking Trump’s coronavirus response, Trump’s campaign hasn’t been on the airwaves. Nor has the largest Super PAC supporting Trump’s re-election, causing concern among his advisers over the lack of defense the president has been getting, said a one person close to the campaign.
“Where the hell is the Super PAC?” the person said. “There are four Super PACs on Joe Biden’s side spending millions attacking the president and we are wondering where are the president’s friends? Where is his air cover?”
The campaign also recently started trying to use the moment of uncertainty as a fundraising opportunity, sending out an email Friday asking for $35 donation to become an “Official 2020 Trump Gold Card Member.”
“Our Nation is facing uncharted territory and there’s never been a more important time for all of us to come together than right now,” the campaign email said.
Trump and his campaign’s embrace of the coronavirus response is a risky strategy should the virus continue on its current trajectory. The U.S. now has more reported cases of the virus than any other country, including China, where Trump has repeatedly sought to link the virus.
But the president has been hedging his bets by laying the groundwork to blame everyone from Democratic governors to General Motors for whatever negative outcomes there may be — a strategy he’s deployed through his career and presidency, said one Republican strategist.
At times, Trump’s description of the state of measures being taken by his administration has stood in sharp relief to the reality being described by the experts on the ground involved in the response, sparking criticism that he has overplayed the available assistance, giving overly optimistic timelines and overstating his accomplishments in fighting the pandemic.
Still, he saw a bump in his approval ratings since last week when he shifted away from downplaying the threat of the coronavirus to encouraging Americans to take drastic measures to slow the spread of the virus, such as avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people and steering clear of restaurants and bars.
Trump’s approval rating rose 5 percentage points to 49 percent in a Gallup survey conducted last week, only the third time it has gone that high with the other two times being after his acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial.
But he hasn’t seen the type of rallying effect other presidents have experienced in moments of crisis — George W. Bush reached a 90 percent approval rating by Gallup in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks — a sign of how polarized the country has become, as well as Trump’s difficulty in playing the role of unifier and consoler-in-chief, which has has struggled with numerous times over this presidency, said Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster with Heart Research
“After 9/11 there was a real ability for Bush’s numbers to move, and I think part of this is that Donald Trump brought to the White House a unique set of skills, like his ability shake things up, but bringing people together during a crisis was not one of them and we are seeing this play out in real timed,” said Horwitt.
Americans have widely embraced Trump’s recent call for drastic changes to their lives to try to stop the virus’s spread, with about 70 percent saying it’s necessary for most businesses to temporarily close and two-thirds of Americans viewing the situation as a “significant crisis,” according to a Pew survey released this week.
It’s unclear how his shift this past week towards pushing for Americans to get back to work and again equating the coronavirus to the seasonal flu could alter those views.
“People really do see this as a crisis, and the expectation is it is going to get worse before it gets better,” Horwitt said. “When you have a leader expressing that and providing clear, concise and credible direction and leadership that would be to their benefit. If you are providing communication that suggests otherwise, it both goes against facts and also goes against what people are seeing themselves.”
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