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Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020

Downing Street hits back at claims it was 'too slow' to respond to coronavirus

Downing Street has slammed newspaper reports that Boris Johnson’s government were too slow to act on the coronavirus pandemic as it hit UK shores.
The government was accused of ‘sleepwalking’ into the Covid-19 ‘disaster’, as it was revealed the prime minister had missed five crucial emergency Cobra meetings as the virus tightened its grip on China and much of continental Europe.

A damning investigation, published by the Sunday Times, said a Whitehall source claimed the government had ‘missed the boat on testing and PPE’. The article also claimed the Johnson administration ‘just watched’ as the death toll mounted in the then-epicentre of the outbreak, Wuhan, China.

Number 10 has now hit back at the piece, accusing it of ‘falsehoods’ and ‘errors’, in a lengthy statement posted by the Department of Health and Social Care on the gov.uk website.

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.’

It was revealed that the meetings were skipped so Mr Johnson could prioritise the EU withdrawal agreement and reshuffling his cabinet.

But as the virus crept towards Europe, he missed further Cobra meetings to spend two weeks with his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds, at a country retreat in Chevening.

It was not until March 2 – five weeks after the first committee was called – that the PM decided to attend. By then, the virus had spread to all but one country in western Europe, while Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted a UK endemic was ‘inevitable’.

However, ministers today defended the actions of the PM, who is currently recovering from Covid-19 at the country residence Chequers.

Michael Gove appeared on several Sunday morning TV shows and described the article as ‘off beam’.

The Duchy of Lancaster confirmed that Mr Johnson had failed to show up to five weeks’ worth of committee Cobra meetings – but insisted this wasn’t unusual and described the criticism of the PM as ‘grotesque’.

In today’s No 10 daily press briefing, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson also batted off criticism against the PM.

He said: ‘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, making sure that resources or money is not a concern for any department, especially the health service.’

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 Cobra meeting.’

The report also said that the UK sent 279,000 items of personal protective equipment to China earlier this year, ahead of the UK facing a shortage with doctors saying they felt unsafe to go to work.

In response to the claims, the Government spokesman said: ‘The equipment was not from the pandemic stockpile.

‘We provided this equipment to China at the height of their need and China has since reciprocated our donation many times over. Between April 2-April 15 we have received over 12 million pieces of PPE in the UK from China.’

Earlier today, 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.’

As of Sunday morning, the UK’s death toll surpassed 16,000, while more than 120,000 people have tested positive for the virus.
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