If Boris Johnson can hear the sounds outside St. Thomas’ Hospital, he might struggle to recognize the rambunctious city he is so closely associated with.
The London that Mr. Johnson governed for eight years as mayor, before entering national politics and rising last year to become Prime Minister, is usually as brash and unapologetic as he is. This is a city that – along with its mayor – made a spectacle of itself during the splashy 2012 Olympics and carried on largely without pause through a series of deadly terrorist attacks over the past 15 years.
But London is paused now, forced to a near-standstill by the coronavirus pandemic. As Mr. Johnson lies in the intensive-care unit of St. Thomas’ waging his own battle with COVID-19 – on Tuesday he was stable but still required supplemental oxygen – an eerie stillness hangs over the city outside.
In normal times, Britain’s capital is a cacophony of people and vehicles trying to get places and of the loudest brand of street politics. It’s a rare day when there isn’t some form of protest occupying Westminster Square, across from the houses of Parliament, or the roads leading to the Prime Minister’s official residence at No. 10 Downing St.
But on Tuesday, it was quiet enough outside the hospital to contemplate the pounding feet of joggers and the whizzing wheels of delivery bicycles. The only breaks in the serenity came from the all-too-common sirens of emergency vehicles.
The London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel a short walk away along the south bank of the River Thames, stood silent. The coronavirus forced it to stop turning on March 20. Across the river, even Big Ben – clad in scaffolding for a years-long renewal project – doesn’t chime these days, robbing the city of its most treasured sound at a time when it might be appreciated most.
In a small park adjacent to St. Thomas’, patients and hospital staff sat slumped, one person per bench, keeping their distance from each other as they breathed in the city’s fresher-than-usual air.
On Westminster Bridge, a lone protester hoisted a pair of hand-painted signs that read, “PPE, PPE,” a plea for staff of the country’s National Health Service to be supplied with better personal protective equipment. The British media have reported on hospitals (though not St. Thomas’) where shortages of masks and other gear have forced doctors and nurses to cover themselves with plastic garbage bags and borrowed ski goggles.
“I’m just a member of the public, an ordinary member of the public,” said the woman, an artist in her 50s, who refused to give her name. Speaking through a mask, she told The Globe and Mail that her sister worked for the NHS. “These kids are working to save us, and they’re not getting any PPE. This [protesting] is the least I can do.”
By Tuesday the pandemic had taken 6,159 lives in Britain. London has more confirmed cases and deaths than any other region of the country.
The artist was the lone demonstrator The Globe encountered during a walk through the centre of London Tuesday. Near Parliament, a statue of Mr. Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, leaned over Westminster Square, which was empty but for a few sunbathers and a homeless man who held up a hand-drawn “Please can you help me in these hard times” sign that went ignored by the few passersby.
A similar quiet hung over Downing Street, where Mr. Johnson’s pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds, is herself recovering from coronavirus symptoms.
Even Buckingham Palace sits largely empty these days. The Queen left London more than two weeks ago for Windsor Castle. She addressed the country from there on Sunday, hours before it was announced that Mr. Johnson had been taken to hospital.
A line of TV journalists stood outside St. Thomas’ Tuesday morning as it turned to afternoon. They fiddled with their masks between live segments, during which they updated their viewers about Mr. Johnson’s condition and how the government would function if he didn’t recover.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was deputized Sunday to stand in for Mr. Johnson during his illness. Even before that information had sunk in came Tuesday’s breaking news that Michael Gove, another senior cabinet minister and close ally of Mr. Johnson, was self-isolating after a member of his family began exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
An ambulance screamed by as the media tried to explain Britain’s rapidly changing situation to their viewers. Across the river, Big Ben silently marked the passing of another hour.
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