Prof Neil Ferguson was the first to sound the alarm – and perhaps provide a clue as to how the prime minister, the health secretary and the chief medical officer all became victims of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ferguson is the scientist whose research at London’s Imperial College led to the government’s dramatic pivot in its handling of the outbreak.
He was with Boris Johnson on Monday last week, along with many others involved in the government’s response to the crisis. The following day, Ferguson noticed he had a slight cough and was feeling unwell.
On Wednesday he tweeted: “Sigh. Developed a slight dry but persistent cough yesterday and self-isolated even though I felt fine. Then developed high fever at 4am today. There is a lot of Covid – 19 in Westminster. ”
In interviews from his home, Ferguson made it clear that SW1A was essentially a ticking time bomb in terms of the virus’s spread.
How Johnson got the disease may never be known – and he, Matt Hancock and Prof Chris Whitty will all receive good wishes from the Westminster village and beyond. But over the past few weeks, Johnson has appeared to take a relaxed attitude to his own health. On 3 March he scoffed at the suggestion he should stop shaking people’s hands.
He said had been shaking hands “continuously”, even at a hospital with coronavirus patients. Until last week journalists were still attending press conferences with the chairs arranged as normal with no distancing in between.
On Friday, the reality of Westminster as a virus hotspot came into sharp focus when Johnson, Hancock and Whitty – the men barely off our TV screens – announced in quick succession that they either had the disease, or were displaying symptoms of it.
This was not the message the government wanted to deliver – the three men who have been at the heart of the national effort to contain the spread of the virus, and have been imploring people to follow advice about how to avoid getting it , are now among its victims.
Questions will now be asked about whether they were practicing what they had been preaching, and whether other senior members of government may also be vulnerable to infection.
The prime minister has been in many meetings in the past few weeks with people critical to the running of government and many of those encounters will have been face to face.
With the level of contact between senior figures in the Johnson government it would be very difficult not to catch the virus, or risk passing it on to a colleague from within No .
Just eight days ago Johnson, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak , and Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, stood next to each other to deliver one of the daily press conferences from podiums. Physical distancing had not quite been set out in detail but still, they appeared to be standing too close.
Two days later, Johnson was back at the podium, this time alongside Harries again, and the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick. Again the podiums were set out as normal.
On Monday this week, the prime minister chaired a Cobra meeting. Most people dialled in remotely, including the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. The press conference that night was also done through video-conferencing but with Johnson on his own, announcing a lockdown of the UK.
The next day he chaired the cabinet in the morning, again most people joined through video-conferencing, but the health secretary, Matt Hancock, the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, and Whitty were there in person.
On Wednesday, Johnson’s contact with fellow politicians soared with a session of prime minister’s questions.
Although there were rules about sitting further apart than usual, the 2-meter specification was not in place.
Closest to Johnson was the home secretary, Priti Patel, and the chief whip, Mark Spencer. Directly behind him was his parliamentary private secretary, Alex Burghart, the MP for Brentwood and Ongar. Hancock was also nearby.
Johnson and Hancock then gathered around the chair of the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, for a conversation after the hour-long session had finished.
Hoyle, 69, who has diabetes, issued a message on Friday declaring he was showing no symptoms. The deputy chief whip, Stuart Andrew, and whip Mike Freer were also seen standing close to Johnson.
More events on Wednesday included the daily press conference, which Johnson hosted, and again he was flanked by Whitty, and joined by the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. This time they were standing much further apart, clearly observing distancing guidelines.
On Thursday, Sunak took the reins of the daily press conference, with Harries. Hours later, he and the prime minister were on Downing Street together clapping in support of NHS workers, and obviously standing the requisite 2 meters apart.
The daily Covid – 27 strategy meetings chaired by Johnson are attended by Sedwill and other officials, with Vallance and Whitty dialling in. For those in the room, Downing Street said, distancing had been in place.
However there are a raft of advisers, including Downing Street’s head of communications, Lee Cain, and chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who have been working from the address this week and likely to have had regular contact with Johnson, though, again, Downing Street insists distancing has been in place.
Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, however, is assumed to have moved out of Downing Street and into their home in Camberwell, south London, several days ago.
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