LONDON, ENGLAND – MARCH 25: Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for PMQ’s on March 25, 2020 in London, England. British parliament will be suspended tonight due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. It had previously been scheduled to break for Easter on March 31; it will tentatively sit again on April 21. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to at least 182 countries, claiming over 18,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
London (CNN)British Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed five emergency meetings in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, officials admitted on Sunday, as the UK government faced a barrage of criticism over its response to the spread of the disease.
Government ministers were forced on the defensive after a wide-ranging critique in the Sunday Times of London revealed that the UK missed a string of missed opportunities to get on the front foot in late January and throughout February.
Michael Gove, one of the senior Cabinet ministers leading the response to the pandemic, admitted that Johnson had not chaired five meetings of the UK government’s Cobra committee — a cross-departmental group convened in situations of national emergency — but that the thrust of the Sunday Times piece was “off beam.”
Tthe opposition Labour Party health spokesman Jon Ashworth said there were “serious questions” to answer about why the Prime Minister had missed the five Cobra meetings in February. “The whole world could see how serious this was becoming and we know that serious mistakes were made,” he said in comments posted on Twitter.
Workers in the UK health service are still lacking adequate protective equipment, coronavirus testing is not at the levels needed and hospitals have been given the wrong type of ventilators, Ashworth said.
Gove defended Johnson’s efforts. “The idea that the Prime Minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus, I think is grotesque,” Gove told Sophy Ridge on Sky News on Sunday. “The truth is that there were meetings across government, some of which were chaired by the Health Secretary, some by other ministers, but the Prime Minister took all major decisions,” said Gove.
“Nobody can say that the Prime Minister wasn’t throwing heart and soul into fighting this virus. His leadership has been clear. He’s been inspirational at times.”
Speaking later on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, Gove acknowledged that Johnson had not attended the five Cobra meetings but said this was not unusual since such meetings were usually led by the relevant Secretary of State. Johnson first chaired a Cobra meeting on coronavirus on March 2.
Gove added that the Sunday Times article was using this information “out of context” and “whipped [it] up in order to create a ‘j’accuse’ narrative.”
The government is under pressure over its response to the coronavirus outbreak and faces growing calls for it to spell out a plan for bringing the country out of lockdown. The number of UK deaths in hospital of people who tested positive for coronavirus had reached 16,060 as of 5 p.m. Saturday, the Department of Health and Social Care said.
By Laura Smith-Spark and Arnaud Siad, CNN
Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT) April 19, 2020