It is “grotesque” to suggest that Prime Minister Boris Johnson “skipped” meetings on the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis, one of his senior ministers has told Sky News.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove defended the PM after an investigation by The Sunday Times claimed the government missed a series of opportunities to lessen the impact of COVID-19 in the weeks leading up to the lockdown being imposed.
The paper also highlighted the fact that Mr Johnson did not attend the first five emergency meetings in the run-up to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK – something that was confirmed to Sky News at the start of March.
But Mr Gove hit back, telling Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “The idea that the prime minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus, I think is grotesque.”
He added: “The truth is that there are meetings across 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.
“I think that anyone who considered what happened to the prime minister not long ago, nobody can say the prime minister isn’t throwing heart and soul into fighting this virus.
“His leadership has been inspirational at times and I think that actually nothing is more off-beam than the suggestion that the prime minister was anything other than energetic, determined, focused and strong in his leadership against this virus.”
Mr Gove said Mr Johnson was “recovering well” after his time in intensive care with COVID-19 and was in “cheerful spirits”.
He added that the PM had spoken with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – who is deputising for Mr Johnson – and his instructions had been communicated to cabinet ministers.
Speaking later to the BBC, Mr Gove acknowledged that the PM was not at the first five COBRA meetings, but said this was not unusual.
“Because most COBRA meetings don’t have the prime minister attending them,” he explained.
The Sunday Times investigation claimed that ministers ignored dire warnings from scientists – and the UK lost “a crucial five weeks in the fight to tackle the dangerous threat of coronavirus despite being in a perilously poor state of preparation for a pandemic”.
Government whistleblowers, scientists and emergency planners alleged there was a complacency at the heart of government in late January and February when it should have been urgently replenishing stockpiles.
Mr Gove said the investigation “had one or two off-beam elements to it”.
Asked specifically what was incorrect in The Sunday Times report, he said: “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, but that will be done later.”
A Downing Street spokesman hit back at the report, saying: “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.”
But Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth labelled Mr Gove’s “off-beam” response “possibly the weakest rebuttal of a detailed expose in British political history”.
The shadow health secretary said the PM had “serious questions” to answer.
He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “None of us expect the impossible, we understand that mistakes will be made in a crisis of this nature, but 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 front line NHS staff don’t have the PPE [personal protective equipment], 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.”
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