(CN) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday he tested positive for the novel coronavirus, becoming the latest politician and high-profile public figure to self-isolate and work from home.
In a video message, Johnson announced he took a test after he developed a fever and a persistent cough. In the video, he characterized his symptoms as mild and he showed no obvious signs of being sick.
“I am self-isolating,” he said, speaking from Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence. “I am working from home.”
Shortly afterward, Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary leading the fight against coronavirus, said he too had tested positive.
With the 55-year-old prime minister infected, the business of government in the U.K., as it is in so many countries now, is going ever more online. European institutions, businesses and schools are largely working remotely and communicating on video conference calls.
“Be in no doubt that I can continue, thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, to communicate with all my top team, to lead the national fightback against coronavirus,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s announcement comes only two days after Prince Charles, the 71-year-old heir to the British throne, announced he had tested positive. Both Johnson and Prince Charles met Queen Elizabeth II a little more than two weeks ago, raising concerns the elderly queen was exposed. The queen, who turns 94 next month, and her husband, Prince Philip, sequestered themselves in Windsor Castle last week. Buckingham Palace says the queen is in good health.
Similar concerns are found in the Vatican City over protecting Pope Francis from the deadly virus. A priest who lives in the pope’s Santa Marta residence tested positive and was hospitalized a few days ago. To ward off a flare-up in Vatican City, the Holy See is now testing many priests in the pope’s residence. The pope has tested negative twice.
The outbreak in the U.K. is getting much worse and seeing two of the country’s leaders go into self-isolation adds to the anxiety of a nation struggling to cope with the pandemic. On Friday, the U.K. said 759 people have died and it has 14,579 confirmed cases.
In recent weeks, Johnson and his administration have been criticized for not taking more aggressive measures to impose a lockdown to contain the virus.
Government advisers initially talked about fighting the virus by having a large portion of the population get infected, a strategy known as “herd immunity,” and Johnson continued shaking hands, even with people at a hospital with infected patients.
Downing Street has been on the back foot and even had to defend a recent report in the Sunday Times newspaper alleging Johnson’s controversial chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, said in a meeting he wanted to protect the economy and argued against strict measures. The report said the meeting was summarized by a quote saying Cummings believed “if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” The government said the article contained “invented” quotes.
Cummings was a mastermind behind the campaign to get British voters to back leaving the European Union and he recently issued a call for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for government jobs. One such hire turned into a scandal after it was revealed he’d suggested blacks were less intelligent than whites and contraception should be compulsory to a prevent a “permanent underclass.”
In a strange twist, shortly after Johnson announced he was sick on Friday, British media shot video of Cummings exiting a back door of No. 10 Downing Street and running away, his work bag under his arm. The image of Cummings fleeing Downing Street drew rebuke and ridicule on social media. “Couldn’t make this up even if you tried,” one person said on Twitter. Another chipped in: “Rats, sinking ships and all that…” Another: “Take it on the chin Boris, I’m off.”
Johnson is the first national leader to announce he has contracted the virus. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are also running their countries in self-isolation, but they are not believed to have contracted the virus.
A number of other politicians and leaders have been infected, including Italian mayors and government officials in the hardest-hit areas of northern Italy. Nicola Zingaretti, the head of Italy’s Democratic Party, which is in a ruling coalition, got infected 10 days after he held an event in Milan where he drank an aperitif in a bid to tell Italians it was safe to keep going on with their normal lives. In Spain, Carmen Calvo, the deputy prime minister, also tested positive.
Since the outbreak erupted in countries outside China little more than a month ago, a number of high-profile figures in Europe and the United States have tested positive and the virus has also claimed the lives of several well-known personalities.
Among the most famous to have contracted the virus are Spanish opera singer Placido Domingo, who is 79, actor Tom Hanks and best-selling Chilean writer Luis Sepulveda.
On March 12, Hanks said he and his wife, actress Rita Wilson, tested positive while in Australia. They required hospitalization and are doing much better, according to a recent statement from the actor.
Domingo announced he had contracted the virus on March 22. He said on his Facebook page that he was doing well, although he had a fever and a cough.
Sepulveda, who is 70, has been hospitalized in Spain since the beginning of March and he reportedly is recovering.
The virus has also stolen some beloved figures.
This week, American dramatist and playwright Terrence McNally died due to complications from coronavirus at age 81. Also this week, Manu Dibango, a well-known Cameroonian saxophone player who influenced Michael Jackson, died in a Paris hospital after contracting Covid-19, as the virus is known. He was 86.
On March 23, Italy grieved the loss of actor Lucia Bosé, who died at age 89. She appeared in landmark films by Michelangelo Antonioni (1950’s “Story of a Love Affair”) and Juan Antonio Bardem (1955’s “Death of a Cyclist”). She also was in films by Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau and Federico Fellini.
As the list of public figures, celebrities and wealthy contracting the virus grows, their announcements also have drawn criticism of unfair access to the tests. Many people around the world – even medical workers – are being told they cannot get tested due to a shortage. In many countries, only those who are severely sick get tested.
That criticism grew as sports teams in the U.S. and Europe tested their players, which resulted in a number of positives, among them stars such as basketball player Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets and Argentinian soccer player Paulo Dybala of the elite Italian club Juventus.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.