Boris Johnson’s government has come under pressure to defend its handling of the coronavirus pandemic after Michael Gove was forced to admit that the prime minister had missed five key emergency meetings when the crisis first hit.
With ministers warning that shortages of protective medical gear could continue, test rates remaining stubbornly low and the hospital death toll rising on Sunday to 16,060, some Conservative MPs have expressed private concern that Downing Street does not have a strong grip on the crisis.
Johnson’s role in the decision-making over crucial weeks before the UK-wide lockdown now risks becoming a symbol of that perceived inattention, with Labour saying the prime minister appeared to have been “missing in action” at the time.
His de facto deputy, Gove, sent out on a broadcast round, initially refused to comment on a report in the Sunday Times – which also claims that 279,000 of the UK’s shrinking PPE stockpile was sent to China – saying Johnson had missed five meetings of the government’s Cobra emergency committee in late January and February while he was taking a break at a government country retreat.
“I won’t go through, here, a point-by-point rebuttal of all the things in the Sunday Times story that are a little bit off beam,” Gove told Sky News.
But about 90 minutes later, he told the BBC that Johnson had, indeed, missed all five meetings, saying instead that this was normal. “Most Cobra meetings don’t have the prime minister attending them,” said Gove, whose cabinet title is chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. “That is the whole point.”
Cobra meetings were “led by the relevant secretary of state in the relevant area”, he argued. “The prime minister is aware of all of these decisions and takes some of those decisions. You can take a single fact, wrench it out of context, whip it up in order to create a j’accuse narrative. But that is not fair reporting.”
Addressing the daily No 10 press conference later, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, reiterated this point, insisting that Johnson had, throughout, “been leading our nation’s effort to combat the coronavirus”.
While it is correct that the Cobra meetings are often chaired by others, in times of national crisis prime ministers have generally been ever present. Gordon Brown’s former press secretary Damian McBride tweeted that Brown, when PM, had chaired every Cobra meeting during the 2007 foot-and-mouth outbreak.
The sense of the government being forced on to the defensive was reinforced by two hugely detailed rebuttals it published on Sunday. One said the Sunday Times article contained “a series of falsehoods and errors”, while another condemned a Financial Times story about supposed confusion in efforts to source privately designed ventilators.
The acknowledgement of Johnson’s absences, some of which took place during a 12-day period in February during which he retreated into privacy at the government’s Chevening country estate in Kent, risks reinforcing a sense of official drift, with the PM still absent as he recovers from coronavirus.
Conservative MPs are barred from speaking to the media about the pandemic without No 10 clearance, but some are known to be worried about the apparent lack of preparation, the continued significant daily rises in deaths, and the lack of a publicly discussed exit strategy from lockdown.
The latest daily deaths figure from the virus in hospitals announced on Sunday was 596, well down on the previous day’s 888. However, Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer speaking alongside Williamson at the press conference, said this could be in part due to lower reporting rates over the weekend.
Asked to predict whether the UK might have passed the peak of the crisis, she declined to “jump to all sorts of positive conclusions”, but said the data connected to hospital admissions looked as if it was “starting to plateau”.
With the number of hospital victims virus now above 16,000, the country is on a similar trajectory to Italy, according to a government-produced chart estimating total deaths including those outside hospital settings.
Harries warned against comparisons with other European countries such as Germany, which has seen just over 4,500 deaths, saying the countries were “at different phases of the pandemic”, while differences in areas such as data and demographics made the area even more complex.
She also defended official preparations for the virus, saying: “We had and we still have a very clear plan – we had a containment phase and it was very successful.”
Ministers spent much of the day trying to quash reports about possible ways the economy and society could gradually emerge from lockdown once the number of Covid-19 cases begins to drop.
Gove rejected reports of a supposed “traffic light” phased return to normality over May and June, starting with schools, nurseries and more shops beginning to open, then moving on to smaller companies, restaurants and then other venues, with distancing measures in place.
This was not the plan, Gove told Sky: “It is the case that we are looking at all of the evidence, but we’ve set some tests which need to be passed before we can think of easing restrictions in this lockdown.” Williamson reiterated the point at the press conference, declining to give a date as to when pupils might return to school.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, told the Ridge show that Gove had given “possibly the weakest rebuttal of a detailed exposé in British political history”. There were, he added, “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”.
In this context, he added, the knowledge Johnson had missed key meetings “suggests that early on he was missing in action”.
Johnson remains at his official country retreat of Chequers. Gove said the PM was “in cheerful spirits” and had talked on Friday to Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, who is standing in for him.