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UK gov’t accused of complacency over COVID-19: report

British premier reportedly missed five key meetings despite 'perilously poor state of preparation for a pandemic’

Karim El-Bar   | 20.04.2020
UK gov’t accused of complacency over COVID-19: report

LONDON 

An investigative report by British newspaper The Sunday Times rocked the U.K. government Sunday, claiming a series of grave errors were made early in the coronavirus outbreak in late January and February.

The piece, titled “Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed a series of crucial meetings, that stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) were not replenished and that testing capacity was not ramped up quickly enough.

British health authorities announced Sunday that the U.K.-wide death toll from the coronavirus had reached 16,060.

Britain lost “a crucial five weeks in the fight to tackle the dangerous threat of the coronavirus despite being in a perilously poor state of preparation for a pandemic,” the report said.

Johnson missed five meetings of Cobra, the government’s emergency council that convenes in times of crisis, according to the report.

The report added that the U.K. sent 279,000 pieces of PPE to China despite not replenishing its own stocks in preparation for increased cases; the last pandemic rehearsal was in 2016 and found the U.K. lacked both PPE and ventilators, but the recommendations were not acted on; no-deal Brexit preparations “sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning”; and that despite the British Healthcare Trades Association offering help making PPE as early as February, their offer was only accepted on April 1.

It said that early on, key members of the government’s response team were committed to the idea of herd immunity, something the government has been forced to deny repeatedly in recent weeks and months.

When China informed the WHO of an abnormal number of pneumonia cases in its central city of Wuhan, Johnson was on holiday on a private Caribbean island.

He missed the Cobra meetings but found time to deal with the final preparations for Brexit as well as take part in celebrations for Chinese New Year.

The report said Johnson was also distracted by private matters, namely finalizing his divorce and announcing his engagement to his pregnant girlfriend Carrie Symonds.

“There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there. And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be,” it quoted an anonymous Downing Street senior adviser saying.

The report also blamed government austerity for the lack of preparation, quoting the same government source as saying: “We were the envy of the world, but pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years, when there were more pressing needs.”

- Opposition on the attack

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, wrote in another British newspaper, the Mail on Sunday, that “the government was too slow to enter the lockdown. It has been too slow to increase the number of people being tested.

“It has been too slow in getting NHS [National Health Service] staff the critical equipment they need to keep them safe. We need to make sure these mistakes are not repeated. And this week has exposed how the government has been too slow to respond to the growing emergency in our social care services."

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said there were “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.”

“These reports raise serious questions about the government’s immediate response to this pandemic and whether they were too slow to act. Mistakes have been made, especially over PPE and testing.”

- Government on the defense

Government minister Michael Gove told the BBC: “The idea that the prime minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus I think is grotesque.”

“The truth is that there are meetings in government, some of which are chaired by the health secretary, some of which are chaired by other ministers, but the Prime Minister took all the major decisions.

“No one, when you consider what the Prime Minister has been through recently, nobody can say the Prime Minister hasn't thrown his heart and soul into this,” he said.

“Whoever is chairing those meetings reports to the prime minister. 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,” he said.

Johnson himself is still recovering from the coronavirus at Chequers, the U.K. prime minister’s country house.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “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.”

After originating in China last December, COVID-19 has spread to at least 185 countries and regions worldwide, with Europe and the U.S. currently the worst hit.

The pandemic has killed nearly 165,000, with the total number of infections exceeding 2.39 million while more than 611,000 have recovered, according to figures compiled by U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

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