In Brief

Coronavirus: Government ‘asleep at wheel’ in run-up to outbreak

Damning report says Boris Johnson missed five emergency Cobra meetings and UK shipped protective equipment to China

The government has been accused of being asleep at the wheel in the crucial weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK in a damning report that raises questions about Boris Johnson’s leadership during the crisis.

The Sunday Times article titled “38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster” suggests the government greatly underestimated the threat posed by the virus despite early warning signs from other countries and even shipped protective equipment to China in February.

It singles out Boris Johnson for particular criticism, saying he missed five consecutive emergency Cobra meetings in the buildup to the coronavirus crisis, leaving him “facing accusations that he was slow to respond at the start of the pandemic which has now claimed the lives of more than 15,000 Britons” says The Independent.

One senior Downing Street advisor has blamed the weeks of complacency on a failure of leadership in cabinet.

“There’s no way you’re at war if your prime minister isn’t there,” they said. “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.”

The Times says “one day there will be an inquiry into the lack of preparations during those ‘lost’ five weeks from January 24. There will be questions about when politicians understood the severity of the threat, what the scientists told them and why so little was done to equip the National Health Service for the coming crisis. It will be the politicians who will face the most intense scrutiny”.

The Department of Health and Social Care came out swinging yesterday with a blog post which claimed the Sunday Times article contained “a series of falsehoods and errors”.

The post also claimed that the feature “actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work which was going on in government at the earliest stages of the Coronavirus outbreak.”

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Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove also defended the government, saying parts of the report were “off beam” and the prime minister’s portrayal in the article was “grotesque”, adding that most Cobra meetings are not attended by the prime minister but rather by relevant senior ministers.

“You can take a single fact, wrench it out of context, whip it up in order to try to create a j’accuse narrative, but that is not fair reporting,” the former journalist told the BBC’s Andrew Marr yesterday.

The Guardian says “Gove is correct in that prime ministers do not always, or even routinely, chair Cobra meetings. But it is common for them to do so during a major crisis”.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth labelled Gove’s “off-beam” response “possibly the weakest rebuttal of a detailed expose in British political history”.

It is “the story everybody is talking about” writes Politico’s Emilio Casalicchio.

Perhaps most worryingly for the government the report links the failure to properly prepare for the coronavirus with years of Conservative rule, arguing that the country was too consumed by Brexit and too hobbled by a decade of austerity to deal with the pandemic.

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