Government failings to tackle the coronavirus pandemic in February “may have cost thousands of lives”, according to an explosive report in today’s Sunday Times.
The paper states Boris Johnson “skipped five Cobra meetings on the virus” while the government ignored scientists’ warnings and early calls for protective equipment, instead sending PPE from the UK depleting stockpiles to China.
Michael Gove hit back at the accusations and called the idea that Johnson “skipped vital meetings” on the coronavirus, “grotesque”.
UK sent PPE to China
Gove refused to comment about a February shipment of PPE from the UK to China when asked three times about the claim on Sky’s Sophie Ridge on Sunday Show.
Commenting on Johnson missing five consecutive Cobra meetings, Gove said: “The idea that the prime minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus, I think is grotesque.”
He said he would not do “a point-by-point rebuttal” of the claims made by the Sunday Times, describing them as “a little off-beam”, but shortly after, on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show he accepted both claims are correct.
Gove said “most Cobra meetings” are not attended by the PM, who instead is reported to by “whoever is chairing those meetings” and said it “is not fair reporting” to “take a single fact, wrench it out of context, [and] whip it up in order to create a j’accuse narrative.”
On the issue of PPE sent from the UK to China, Gove said it was true but that “much more” has been received from China since, than was sent from the UK in February.
PM missed 5 Cobra meetings
Johnson’s absence from a January Cobra meetings is called “unusual” in the Sunday Times story, which states: “The committee — which includes ministers, intelligence chiefs and military generals — gathers at moments of great peril such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other threats to the nation and is normally chaired by the prime minister.”
Johnson missed the next four Cobra meetings and did not attend one until March 2. “But by then it was almost certainly too late”, states the Sunday Times story.
“The virus had sneaked into our airports, our trains, our workplaces and our homes”, leaving the country “on course for one of the worst infections of the most insidious virus to have hit the world in a century.”
PM ‘liked his country breaks and didn’t work weekends’
A senior Downing Street adviser broke ranks to blame weeks of complacency in responding to the virus as a failure of leadership by Johnson, and said: “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there.”
The adviser, quoted by the Sunday Times, continued: “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends.
“It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”
Deaths and PPE delays
The news comes as coronavirus global death toll passed 160,000 with the UK accounting for 10% as the number of deaths so far recorded in the UK reached 16,060, a rise of 596.
The much awaited shipment of PPE from Turkey has been delayed, the government revealed earlier today (Sunday). Ministers had heralded today’s arrival of 84 tonnes of PPE – including 400,000 gowns –in the face of mounting criticism over shortages of equipment for frontline healthcare workers.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care told the Evening Standard: “We are continuing to work to ensure the shipment is delivered as soon as possible.”