Coronavirus: Boris Johnson criticised after ‘missing five Cobra meetings’ at start of pandemic

‘There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,’ aide tells Sunday newspaper

Vincent Wood
Saturday 18 April 2020 23:47 BST
Chequers: The countryside retreat where Boris Johnson will recuperate

Boris Johnson has faced a flurry of criticism after it was reported he did not attend five Cobra crisis meetings on the coronavirus as it spread across the world and made inroads into the UK.

Mr Johnson, who is currently recovering from Covid-19 infection, has previously declared his government to be at “war” with the disease that has claimed the lives of more than 15,000 Britons and infected more than 114,000.

However, in the early days of the pandemic the prime minister was reportedly slow to respond – missing five Cobra meetings and only attending once more than 40 people had been proven to be infected in the UK, according to The Sunday Times.

An acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A where the assemblies are held, Cobra meetings are used to discuss pressing crises including terror attacks and are normally led by the prime minister.

Mr Johnson missed five such summits in January and February this year at a time when the coronavirus outbreak was lurking in the background behind Brexit and devastating flooding across Britain, The Sunday Times reported. A Downing Street adviser told the paper: “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there”.

The report follows years of claims Mr Johnson is more comfortable in the public eye than he is with matters of policy – with suggestions going back as far as his time as mayor of London that his leadership style tends to see him delegate sooner than dig through detail.

Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: “These reports raise serious questions about the government’s immediate response to this pandemic and whether they were too slow to act.

“Mistakes have been made, especially over PPE and testing, which ministers must learn from. It is now urgent that our NHS and care staff get the protective equipment they need to keep them safe.”

Angela Rayner, the party’s deputy leader, said that “we need urgent action and transparency from the PM” in the wake of the report, while Liberal Democrat Layla Moran accused the government of “a costly, devastating and unforgivable catalogue of errors” during its early response to the pandemic.

Asked to confirm or deny whether Mr Johnson had indeed missed the five Cobra meetings, a No 10 spokesperson said: “The government has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives.

“Guided by medical and scientific expertise, we have implemented specific measures to reduce the spread of the virus at the time they will be most effective.

“Our response has ensured that the NHS has been given all the support in needs to ensure everyone requiring treatment has received it, as well as providing protection to businesses and reassurance to workers.

“The prime minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation.”

It is understood that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, led the government’s response in its early stages while Mr Johnson ruled on major decisions.

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