As Boris Johnson self-isolates for seven days after testing positive for coronavirus, he must follow the example of his hero, Winston Churchill, in heeding the advice of his doctors. It was on the counsel of his chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, that the Prime Minister subjected himself to a test, which augurs well for the days ahead as he, in his own words ‘continues to lead the government’s response’ to coronavirus.
In December 1943, Churchill’s physician, Sir Charles Wilson (Lord Moran), was quick to spot the signs that his friend of many years was not well. They had arrived in Cairo on December after an exhausting fortnight in which the PM had discussed allied strategy in conferences in Cairo and Tehran. On returning to the Egyptian capital, Churchill and president Roosevelt hosted the Turkish president, Ismet Inönü, during which the British leader attempted unsuccessfully to persuade his guest to enter the war against Germany.
Despite Moran’s protestations that he must ease up, Churchill insisted on flying to Tunis on 10 December, and then going by car to Carthage, for a meeting with American general Dwight Eisenhower. Moran was furious and confided to his diary that he had ‘never been so blunt with the P.M’.
Two days later, Churchill had a temperature of 101. Moran secretly telegraphed Cairo requesting a pathologist, (Colonel Robert Pulvertaft) and two nurses, who arrived on 13 December, much to the annoyance of the PM, who declared he was feeling better. His mood worsened when a portable x-ray apparatus was wheeled in. ‘Damn it, come along, get this business done,’ he snapped at his medical team.
When the plates were examined, Moran explained that the ‘considerable opaque area at the base of the left lung’ was congestion. Twenty four hours later, Churchill had his second pneumonia in a year. ‘I don’t feel well,’ he told Moran. ‘My heart is doing something funny: it feels to be bumping all over the place.’
Moran examined the patient. His pulse was racing and very irregular, and the base of his lungs were congested and the PM’s liver could be felt below the ribs.
Moran knew that ‘we were at last right up against things’, and while outwardly he betrayed no trace of concern for the PM, to his diary the doctor confided his fears about the fibrillation of the 69-year-old’s heart. ‘If I arrive back in England without my patient they will remember this against me,’ he wrote.
Moran’s state of mind grew ever more anxious with what he heard from London. ‘Some of the cabinet have been getting agitated – they seem to be in a complete dither,’ he told his diary on 15 December. ‘They have persuaded themselves that the Prime Minister is not going to come through this attack.’
Churchill harboured no doubts. His wife, Clem, arrived that same evening. The next day, Moran wrote: ‘I think we have turned the corner. The temperature is still 101 but the signs in the chest are clearing up.’
Within days, the PM’s pneumonia began to disappear and another challenge now presented itself to Moran.
Advised to rest for two weeks, Churchill ‘became red in the face with rage’, and harangued his doctor. ‘Perhaps I was a bit short of sleep’, admitted Moran to his diary. ‘Anyway, I told him that he must not shout at me; that he was behaving foolishly. I left him before I said more.’
Churchill allowed himself a week to recover, and, by way of apology to his doctor, he arranged with the Admiralty for Moran’s son, an ordinary seaman on HMS Belfast, to fly to the Middle East for a few days’ leave that he was owed. Then it was to Marrakesh for a working holiday. ‘As the P.M grows in strength, his old appetite for the war comes back’, Moran wrote in his diary at the end of December.
Johnson’s appetite may weaken in the coming days but it will surely return, as he follows medical orders. On the other hand one can’t imagine a man of Churchill’s temperament ever self-isolating. Who would he have had to shout at?