LONDON (AP) — His skin pale and his eyes hooded from a week in the hospital with the coronavirus, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson looked into the camera and paid tribute to the two nurses who never left his bedside for 48 hours, a time when his fight to survive "could have gone either way.″
Jenny McGee from New Zealand and Luis Pitarma from Portugal, he said, embodied the caring and sacrifice of National Health Service staff on the front lines of the pandemic, which has already killed 11,329 people in Britain.
“The reason, in the end, my body did start to get enough oxygen was because, for every second of the night, they were watching and they were thinking and they were caring and making the interventions I needed,” he said in an address to the nation Sunday. “So that is also how I know, that across this country, 24 hours a day, for every second, for every hour, there are hundreds of thousands of NHS staff who are acting with the same care and thought and precision as Jenny and Luis.’’
Johnson's statement could mean the NHS has a powerful new advocate as it seeks to reverse a decade of austerity that has left Britain's doctors and nurses struggling to treat the flood of coronavirus patients with inadequate supplies of protective gear. At least 19 NHS workers have died in the outbreak.
It also was notable for Johnson’s unabashed praise of two immigrants. He has staked his career on Brexit, a cause closely bound up with the desire of many in Britain to control immigration, and his words could mean a change in his government's tone.
“I will never, ever be able to repay you and I will never stop thanking you,’’ added Johnson, who spent three nights in intensive care at St. Thomas’ Hospital.
Johnson called the NHS “unconquerable” and “the beating heart of this country” after seeing its response to the outbreak first-hand. He lauded the courage of everyone from doctors to cooks.
As the 55-year-old Johnson recuperated at his country estate, the video continued to be shared on social media, sweeping across a nation in the fourth week of a lockdown.
The direct and highly personal message could make it harder for him to stonewall the doctors and nurses who saved his life when the NHS asks for more resources in the future, said Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government in London.
“That video yesterday — everyone says that is Boris like they’ve never seen him before championing the NHS,’’ Rutter said. “He would pay a massive political price for hypocrisy if he appeared to be doing anything that suggests skepticism about the NHS or its performance after that speech.’’
But Johnson’s praise for the nurses from New Zealand and Portugal also underscored that it is immigrants who have helped hold up Britain’s NHS. Up to a quarter of the U.K.'s hospital staff were born overseas.
Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the council of the British Medical Association, urged Johnson's government to grant permanent residence to the families of overseas medical staff who die in the pandemic and highlighted that many international doctors and health professional pay a surcharge for their own care because of their immigration status.
“It is unfair to expect doctors currently outside of the U.K. who are willing to come to help in the crisis and other international doctors and health care workers already in the U.K., who are prepared to risk their lives while providing care in the NHS, to pay for that care should they themselves need it,” Nagpaul said.
Though the NHS hasn’t yet been overwhelmed by the outbreak, experts said austerity-fueled cuts have hurt its ability to respond.
“The infectious diseases specialty has been decimated in the last 10 years,” said Allyson Pollock, director of the Newcastle University Centre for Excellence in Regulatory Science. “Our local health authorities have had a 50% cut in their budgets and no longer have responsibility for infectious disease control, so we have no good data on what’s happening at the community level.”
Pollock said the structural changes in the health service have reduced the number of available beds, harmed its ability to chart the epidemic and drained it of expertise.
Other experts noted that pandemic preparedness has taken a back seat to other problems in recent years, such as the effects of Brexit.
Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine noted that in the lead-up to Brexit, the department of health was deploying about 80% of its staff to working on potential problems linked to an exit from the European Union without a deal.
Supply chains were clearly not ready. Chronic problems with getting personal protection gear have alarmed doctors and nurses, threatening to cripple the response.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers in England, which represents hospital trusts, told the BBC that the supply of gowns was precarious because of delays in shipments and because some of the products failed safety tests.
“This is all really hand-to-mouth in terms of gown delivery, and we need to get to a more sustainable supply,″ he said.
There were other problems, too. The government has been criticized for its slow start in increasing coronavirus tests, especially compared with Germany, which has tested far more widely and recorded fewer deaths.
The U.K. government has promised to increase capacity to 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. That figure is now 18,000, and the government says it is quickly increasing the number of testing sites – including 23 drive-thru centers for health care staff and their families.
As it considers easing the lockdown this week, government ministers will be mindful of relaxing measures too soon, despite the economic risks. Treasury chief Rishi Sunak warned last month that the U.K. could fall into recession due to the disruption caused by the outbreak.
There was a sense though, that the end of Johnson’s hospitalization boosted morale.
“Today I’m feeling incredibly lucky,” Johnson said.
Associated Press Medical Writer Maria Cheng contributed.