The British PMs forced to swap No 10 for a hospital ward

A 55-year-old Prime Minister falls ill with a deadly new strain of virus. As he is taken into intensive care his ministers scramble to keep the ship of state on an even keel.

When it comes to being hospitalised while in office Boris Johnson is, unfortunately, in good company.

From David Lloyd George to Tony Blair, some of Britain’s most notable Prime Ministers have been forced to break off from their duties to receive treatment for conditions as serious as severe flu, pneumonia to heart problems.

Indeed, Lloyd George’’s battle with Spanish flu was so grave that at one stage it was feared he would not recover, while the full extent of Winston Churchill’s bouts of pneumonia were never revealed to a war time public so as not to damage morale.

Like Johnson, Lloyd George was struck down at the age of 55, in his case while visiting Manchester to meet troops and munitions workers towards the end of World War One. 

During his visit to the city – at the time suffering particularly badly from the Spanish flu epidemic which went on to kill 228,000 people in Britain and many millions more world wide – the Prime Minister began to complain of a sore throat. 

Then, on September 11, 1918, his condition began to deteriorate.

It soon became clear he was suffering a severe bout of the influenza and spent the next ten days in a makeshift intensive care clinic at Manchester Town Hall, where he was placed on a respirator to help his breathing.

Maurice Hankey, the cabinet secretary, wrote in his diary that the Prime Minister was “very seriously ill”,  while his valet reportedly said it was “touch and go”.

However official medical bulletins of the day appeared to play down the incident, giving no suggestion Lloyd George was in any danger.

To many observers the Government appeared to carry on as normal, with Andrew Bonar Law, the Conservative leader and chancellor in the wartime coalition, already running domestic policy.

Similarly, when Churchill was hospitalised with pneumonia in 1943 and again in 1944, great care was taken in how the news was relayed to a public weighed down by years of conflict against Nazi Germany.

In February 1943, after the 69-year-old Prime Minister contracted pneumonia, Charles Wilson, his personal physician, drafted a bulletin informing the public of his condition.

Churchill, fearing it might lead to a weakening of wartime morale, rejected it as “alarmist” and dictated his own bulletin.

Eventually a compromise wording which satisfied both men was reached, referring to the PM’s ‘improving condition’.

According to Churchill’s wife, Clementine, only a small circle was informed when he suffered a further bout of pneumonia in August 1944, just as the battle to liberate Europe was intensifying. 

Similarly no public mention was made of the stroke Churchill suffered during his return to office a decade later.

During a dinner at No 10 on June 23, 1953, at the height of international Cold War tensions, the Prime Minister – now aged 79 and back in power after Labour’s 1951 defeat – collapsed and had to be discreetly ushered out of the room.

Although he was partially paralysed down one side Churchill still presided over a Cabinet meeting the next morning, but his condition soon deteriorated.

Churchill was taken to Chartwell, his country house in Kent, and Lord Moran, his doctor, initially feared he would not recover.

Jock Colville, the MP’s private secretary, and Christopher Soames, his parliamentary aide and son-in-law, ensured news of his condition did not come out, with the public told only that he was suffering from exhaustion.

Disguising a Prime Minister’s poor health became harder to do in the age of rolling 24-hour news.

In October 2003 Tony Blair – then aged just 50 – was rushed to Hammersmith Hospital in west London for emergency treatment, after he complained of chest pains and an irregular heart beat.

He was admitted to the hospital’s acute department, after first going to the Stoke Mandeville hospital near Chequers, where he was given cardioversion, an electric shock which jolts the heart back to a normal rhythm.

Number 10 played down the incident at the time, but the shock at Britain’s then youthful PM being struck down by a heart condition was palpable.

Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, deputised for Blair in the Commons, until his return to work a day later.

A year later Blair was back at Hammersmith hospital to undergo a catheter ablation operation to correct his heart’s abnormal rhythm.

It later emerged that Blair – whose father Leo suffered a stroke at the age of 39 – had suffered with heart problems “on and off” for 15 years, but these only became public knowledge when he went into hospital.

Like the current Prime Minister, Blair paid tribute to the staff who had looked after him during his time in hospital, saying they reflected “the tremendous dedication, expertise and commitment NHS staff show everyday throughout the country.”

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