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Boris Johnson did not take Covid-19 ‘seriously’ early in pandemic, inquiry told

Boris Johnson was like the “absent manager” of a football team during the pandemic, a public inquiry has heard.

Mark Drakeford, the outgoing Labour First Minister of Wales, heavily criticised the former prime minister, during his appearance at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday.

Some 12,300 people died due to the virus in Wales and there were more than 43,000 coronavirus-related admissions to hospital.

Mr Drakeford – who is due to leave his post next week – said the PM was “not taking it seriously” during the early pandemic and accused him of being deliberately unclear when new rules only applied to England.

In a written statement to the inquiry, Mr Drakeford described Michael Gove – the minister for the Cabinet Office during the early part of the pandemic and point of contact between the two governments – as “a centre forward without a team lined up behind him, and where the manager was largely absent”.

Addressing the inquiry, Mr Drakeford clarified he was talking about Mr Johnson.

He said: “The absent manager was the prime minister because he was never in these meetings or at the table.”

While he praised Mr Gove, he described him as having “influence rather than the determinative impact” that Mr Johnson would have had in the meetings.

Earlier hearings heard Mr Johnson had decided not to meet heads of the devolved nations to avoid giving the impression that the UK was federalised or like a “mini-EU”.

Mr Drakeford said he had written to Mr Johnson “regularly” asking for a “predictable series of meetings between the heads of the four nations” and called the decision not to meet with the devolved nations an “extraordinary decision”.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, arriving at the Covid-19 inquiry (Ben Birchall/PA)

The First Minister claimed that mass gatherings, like the Cheltenham Festival, had only been kept open during the early stages of the pandemic because Dominic Cummings, the former PM’s adviser, had refused to stop them.

He said he had made the argument in Cobra meetings – major briefings between the UK Government and devolved nations – on March 12, weeks before the first lockdown.

He said: “In this discussion, the prime minister did go round the room, he took views from anybody who wanted to contribute, and in that discussion, I was arguing for a four-nation agreement that mass gatherings would not go ahead.”

He added: “The reason I have such a vivid memory of it is that having gone round the table the prime minister summed up against that course of action by saying ‘Dom says no,’ that was his final contribution.

“I did not know who Dom was at this point.”

The Welsh government was criticised for initially allowing a Six Nations rugby union match to go ahead on March 13.

Coronavirus – Wed Sep 30, 2020
Former prime minister Boris Johnson and ex-health secretary Matt Hancock both faced criticism from Mark Drakeford during the inquiry hearing (Yui Mok/PA)

The game was ultimately cancelled the day before kick-off.

He also claimed that Mr Johnson had been “deliberate” in making it unclear that new Covid rules only applied to England, despite pleas from the heads of the devolved governments.

Mr Drakeford said: “(We said) he must make it clear that what he is about to say does not apply to Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland and he gives assurance in the COBR meeting that he will do his very best to make sure that he does that.

“He then heads to the cameras, and he provides a script in which the only time he refers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is when he says early in the press conference ‘as the Prime Minister of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’.

“It is a very clear indication to people that what he’s about to say applied to the whole of the United Kingdom, and he never once says that is not the case.”

Mr Drakeford described this as a “bleak moment” and “deliberate”.

The inquiry also heard that Matt Hancock, the then-UK health secretary, incorrectly stated that public health was not devolved in an “extraordinary exchange of messages” with Mr Gove.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Mr Drakeford said there was a “lack of clarity” over the legislative basis for powers that would be needed to deal with the pandemic, which continued through March 2020.

“My belief right up until March 20 is that the essential decisions would remain in the hands of the UK Government and that devolved governments would be implementers of those decisions,” he told the hearing.

“Even on March 20 there is further confusion over the next couple of days as to where the ability to exercise public health powers lie.

“And there is an extraordinary exchange of messages between Mr Gove and Mr Hancock on May 30, in which Mr Hancock says ‘I’ve seen the submission, it’s disgraceful that lawyers don’t understand where these powers lie because public health is not devolved’.”

Mr Drakeford continued: “So here is the secretary of state for health in England getting the most basic thing entirely wrong.”

He told the hearing it was “pretty alarming” that the legal basis for which “profoundly consequential decisions were being made” was still being resolved on March 20.

Questions were also raised about Mr Drakeford’s use of text and WhatsApp messages.

The First Minister claimed he has not been able to recover messages from his phone for a period covering from July 2018 to March 2021 and that he had only used WhatsApp on 11 occasions during the pandemic, including one which said “thanks”.

Previous hearings heard several Welsh Government ministers deleted or lost messages from the pandemic, including the two men running to be Mr Drakeford’s replacement – Vaughan Gething and Jeremy Miles.

Speaking outside the hearing, Anna-Louise Marsh-Rees, who represents the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru group, said the Welsh Government “ran around like headless chickens” during the pandemic.

“They seem to make decisions without any legal advice, there was no scientific substance,” she said.

“We are hearing a mass of contradictions and deflections.

“We have listened to a number of ministers, particularly this week, and we have not heard one word of sorry, not one word of regret, not one word of contrition, no acknowledgement that anything went wrong.”

Andrew RT Davies, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, criticised Mr Drakeford’s appearance at the inquiry.

He said: “The First Minister has decided to use the UK Covid-19 Inquiry to attack his political opponents.

“The Inquiry is not about political personalities, it’s not about Brexit, but Mark Drakeford clearly went into this process with a view of turning it into a party political broadcast.

“We desperately need a Wales-specific Inquiry to get the answers that the people of Wales deserve.”