Battling Through

By the editor, Apr 13 2020 07:32PM

News about the Prime Minister's illness has been laced with martial and religious imagery. "The British people do want a fighter," Dan Hodges wrote in the Mail on Sunday, defending the widespread comparisons with the Second World War. The British supported the man who "worked himself into the ground - and then into intensive care". Numerous reports referred to him as a proven "fighter". In the Sun, "He stayed at work for you... so pray at home for him". Tim Montgomerie hailed his recovery as a "miracle" after some people had prayed for him. He had suffered for us, the narrative went, but he had risen again.

All of us are going a little bit mad being cooped up, and it can manifest itself in different ways. But behind the hysteria, there is I think a widely-held assumption underlying all such comments. That is: we expect our leaders to carry on working when they're ill. Ordinary mortals who are told by their doctors to rest might be expected to do so. But not Prime Minsters. They must "battle on". If they end up in intensive care, so be it. It is their selfless duty that led them there. After that, all we can do is pray.

This is perhaps the most damaging manifestation of the "presenteeism" that permeates all organisations, not just the Government. Everyone has come across those in senior positions who revel in flaunting their work ethic. When I started my working life, I assumed this was a private sector thing, especially bad in the most highly paid jobs. A friend working for a "Magic Circle" law firm was once scolded by her boss for leaving work at 6. "But I've finished all the work you've given me." "Well", he told her, "don't feel you have to finish it that fast.". In other words, don't be too efficient - people might think you're slacking. It turns out to be as bad in the public sector. I was told once I had little chance of promotion unless I put in a few "late nighters". Senior managers compete with each other to boast about how much work they take back home at weekends.

Similarly, those in senior positions often struggle into work when they're ill. The subtext is, at least, two-fold: firstly, that they're too important not to be in work; secondly, that they're made of sterner stuff than those on the shop floor, They both need to, and can, "battle through". Sometimes, of course, there is something to all this - some people are very difficult to replace, and some people may genuinely be better at fighting off illness than others, and there may be an element of genuine altruism in putting work ahead of health (even though it may be other people's health that is put at risk as well their own). But to a great extent it is simply vanity, and fear - the fear of being thought of as something other than indispensable and indestructible. It's not only the individuals concerned who are to blame, of course: there's a cultural expectation that people in such positions behave in this way.

The higher up the ladder, the greater the pressure to meet this expectation. So for someone as high up as the Prime Minister, it's almost unthinkable that they would simply rest up after getting ill.

And there's a link to another common trait, particularly manifest in this Prime Minister and this Government - the distrust of experts, the cult of the gentleman amateur, the disdain for "girly swots", and the belief in winging it - what might be called the UK's "James Bond problem". Bond won't listen to doctors about his lifestyle, or civil servants about protocol, or anyone else about anything - he'll save the world regardless. I suspect Mr Johnson sees himself in this heroic mode. Certainly many of his admirers do.

The negative consequences of this are serious. Firstly, the Government is urging everyone to follow medical advice. But the message from the Prime Minister is that sometimes it's okay to ignore the medical experts: he carried on working regardless (apparently even taking the red boxes to hospital). Some of this might be PR, of course, but it was clear from some video footage that he was up and about while ill,and wasn't taking as much rest as he should have been. And it fits with much of his other personal behaviour, treating Covid 19 in a lighthearted fashion till mid-March - when he would have known for several weeks how dire the situation was going to be. For example, talking about shaking hands with victims in hospital, working cheek by jowl with colleagues and officials, and attending a packed rugby match, when he would have known the potentially fatal consequences of unnecessary social contact.

Secondly, his admission to hospital has caused potentially serious destablisation to his Government. His recuperation is likely to take several weeks, and could have been even worse. If he couldn't help ending up in hospital, of course we shouldn't blame him for this. As it is, since he ignored medical advice to rest knowing the risks, he does bear some of the blame.

Thirdly, by ending up in intensive care, he's used up precious medical resources, at a time when the NHS is under its severest ever strain. This may sound callous, but playing fast and loose with medical advice is irresponsible when those are the consequences. That is especially the case when you are a person in such a position of such responsibility, and know so much more about the disease and the implications for the NHS. If he could have taken precautions to reduce the risk of being hospitalised, he had a duty to others, as well as himself, to do so.

Finally, what light does this shed on the Government's handling of the crisis generally? We are told repeatedly that they are following the medical advice. But the extent to which they are - and were, at the start of the crisis, when they seemed slow to act - remains in doubt. Given that the Prime Minister has ignored some of the medical advice as it applied to himself, it would hardly be surprising if the Government had decided to ignore some of the medical advice applying to the country.

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