The Government and media have traded blows over reports on how Downing Street prepared for the onset of the Covid-19 crisis.
A Sunday Times Insight report claimed to have unearthed a picture of Britain sleepwalking into disaster during the first 38 days of emergency.
The report, quoting government advisors, revealed that the Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not attend some early COBRA meetings and that vital Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) had been shipped to China at that time.
But the report has been criticised by the government, with Minister Michael Gove labelling it as ‘not fair reporting.’ This morning the government went so far as to issue a 14-point document rebutting claims made by the ST report.
When questioned about The Sunday Times’ Insight report ‘38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster’ on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC, Gove rejected the depiction of COBRA meetings.
The minister said he disagreed with the ‘characterisation’ and ‘narrative’ created by journalists scrutinising the UK preparations in advance of the virus becoming a pandemic.
“The characterisation of COBRA in the Sunday Times report suggesting that it always has military staff in there and so on, is not true. COBRA meetings are led by the relevant Secretary of State in the relevant area […] it would be the case the Health Secretary was chairing”
“So, 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 report shone a light on the Prime Minister’s decision to spend two weeks over the February half term with his fiancée Carrie Symonds at the country retreat Chevening rather than attend meetings. The ST report quoted a senior advisor to Downing Street who criticised the Prime Minister’s lack of attendance at meetings: ‘there was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning’, the advisor told the ST.
When asked about whether he felt an ‘embarrassed shudder of recognition’ when he read the Insight report, Gove said:
“No, I didn’t actually […] I thought it was a little off beam […] because there are a number of things in that response that are wrong; the characterisation of COBRA is wrong.”
When asked by Marr about why the PM did not attend five COBRA meetings, Gove responded:
“He didn’t but then he wouldn’t because most COBRA meetings don’t have the Prime Minister attending them – that is the whole point. The characterisation of COBRA in the Sunday Times report suggesting that it always has military staff in there and so on, is not true. COBRA meetings are led by the relevant Secretary of State in the relevant area […] it would be the case the Health Secretary would chair them […] The Prime Minister is aware of all of these decisions and takes some of these decisions.”
When asked about the UK sending 273,000 pieces of PPE to China in February, Gove added:
“Again, if you take that single fact and say ‘Oh look we’ve been running down our stocks’, then you create a particular narrative, you create a particular sense and what it doesn’t do, is it doesn’t do justice actually to the fact that the Chinese authorities, the Chinese government have responded very generously to our support by giving us far more personal protective equipment than we gave them.
“So, if you wrench facts out of context in order to create a particular – as I say – prosecution case, you can do that, but it doesn’t do justice to the whole story.”
Gove said he found it ‘grotesque’ that the Prime Minister should be portrayed as not caring about this crisis.
The question of why the Prime Minister did not attend a number of COBRA meetings was also raised by BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden this morning.
Dowden replied: “It is perfectly normal for other ministers, appropriate Secretaries of State to chair COBRA. […] In the early stages it was chaired by the Health Secretary, that’s exactly what you would expect. That doesn’t mean the Prime Minister’s not engaged. […] As the crisis progressed, he then took over chairing it, that’s a normal course of events.”
Former chief government science advisor David King told Sky News he could not recall a COBRA meeting during his time that was not chaired by the then prime minister – Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.