Sunday Times’ claims – govt’s rebuttal

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Nation special report

At a critical time, when death toll after contracting coronavirus pandemic in the UK hospitals risen to more than 16,100, an increase of 596 over 24 hours on Saturday (April 19), a new saga over the role of the government especially Prime Minister Boris Johnson has surfaced and diverted the attention of millions of people. Over 7,000 people reportedly also have been died of Coronavirus in care homes… an astonishing figure.

Sunday Times has claimed that the government missed a series of opportunities to lessen the impact of the coronavirus in February and March. But 10-Downing Street has rejected all claims terming them as ‘Errors’ and ‘Falsehoods’.  In the article, a senior adviser from Downing Street said that in the early days of the outbreak in the UK, Boris Johnson “didn’t chair any meetings, liked his country breaks and didn’t work weekends”.

According to the newspaper, the prime minister also reportedly went away to on a retreat to Chevening House in Kent where he spent two weeks over half-term with his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds.

Michael Gove

The article has sparked a fierce social media backlash, with figures from across the political spectrum criticising Johnson’s approach. Opposition Labour Party heavily criticised the government and Shadow health and social care secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “The public deserve clear answers as to why the prime minister skipped five vital Cobra meetings.”We knew in February how serious this virus was. Yet today our NHS and care staff still lacking adequate PPE, testing is not at levels needed and hospitals delivered wrong ventilators.”

Rejecting the claims, Downing Street accused Sunday Times of ‘Errors’ and ‘Falsehoods’ over PM Coronavirus story. The report claimed Boris Johnson’s administration “just watched” as the coronavirus death toll mounted in China.

A Downing Street spokesman released a detailed statement saying: “The prime minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation.”

Quoting a Whitehall source, the Times claimed Boris Johnson’s administration dragged their feet and “missed the boat on testing and PPE” (personal protective equipment).

The article also claimed the Johnson administration “just watched” as the death toll mounted in Wuhan, China and the prime minister did not attend five meetings of the key government’s key Cobra committee in the build-up to the coronavirus outbreak.

Gavin Williamson

In a lengthy blog posted on Gov.uk, a government spokesman said: “This article contains a series of falsehoods and errors and actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work which was going on in government at the earliest stages of the coronavirus outbreak.

“This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice. 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.

 “Our response has ensured that the NHS has been given all the support it 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.”

The tone of the statement, posted on the official gov.uk website, was much more aggressive than that used by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove on Sunday morning TV appearances when he described the article as “off beam”.

Gove had confirmed the Sunday Times report that the PM had not attended five meetings of the key Government committee Cobra in the run-up to the crisis, but insisted this was not unusual.

That stance was echoed by the Government spokesman who said: “It is entirely normal and proper for Cobra to be chaired by the relevant secretary of state. “At this point the World Health Organisation had not declared Covid-19 a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’, and only did so only on January 30. “Indeed, they chose not to declare a PHEIC the day after the Cobr meeting.”

Labour’s criticism

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News: “There are serious questions as to why the Prime Minister skipped five Cobra meetings throughout February, when the whole world could see how serious this was becoming.

“And we know that serious mistakes have been made, we know that our frontline NHS staff don’t have the PPE, that they’ve been told this weekend that they won’t necessarily have the gowns which are vital to keep them safe. We know that our testing capacity is not at the level that is needed.

“We know that the ventilators that many hospitals have received are the wrong types of ventilators and there are big questions as to whether we went into this lockdown too slowly, and now we hear the Prime Minister missed five meetings at the start of this outbreak. It suggests that early on he was missing in action.”

Press briefing

Later on Sunday at the daily press briefing, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said Johnson took charge of the UK’s response to coronavirus “from the moment” the illness was identified in China. He  defended the PM;  “The prime minister from the moment that it became clear that there were challenges in terms of coronavirus developing in China has absolutely been leading our nation’s effort to combat the Coronavirus”.

Williamson said the PM had been “making sure that resources or money is not a concern for any department, especially the health service”. He added that “many Cobra meetings” are led by the departmental minister not the PM.

“The focus the prime minister was putting on this and has continued to put on this has meant that this is the whole government effort,” Williamson added.

Earlier, Michael Gove said Johnson was “in cheerful spirits” as he continued his own recovery from the virus which had left him hospitalised.  The Cabinet Office minister said it was “off beam” to suggest the PM had not had grip the crisis.