Coronavirus: Government rejects Sunday Times claims in unusual 2,000-word rebuttal

Connor Sephton, news reporter
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 12: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at 10 Downing Street after being discharged from hospital in London, Britain, on April 12, 2020. Boris Johnson "has been discharged from hospital to continue his recovery at Chequers", a Downing Street spokesman said Sunday. (Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street/Handout to Xinhua via Getty) (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) (Xinhua/ via Getty Images)

The government has published a lengthy rebuttal to a damning newspaper article that claimed the UK "lost a crucial five weeks" to tackle the threat posed by the coronavirus.

In an unusual move, the Department of Health picked apart allegations made in The Sunday Times one by one - describing elements of its investigation as "plainly untrue" and "ridiculous".

The article had claimed that Boris Johnson missed five key COBRA meetings as the COVID-19 crisis gathered pace, with government whistleblowers and scientists alleging there was complacency at the heart of government in late January and February.

These claims have been fiercely rejected, with Downing Street insisting the UK "was taking action and working to improve its preparedness from early January".

Officials said it is "entirely normal and proper" for COBRA meetings to be chaired by someone other than the prime minister - rather than "unusual" as The Sunday Times suggested.

And allegations that Number 10 displayed an "almost nonchalant attitude" towards coronavirus were dismissed as "wrong".

The government also took issue with an excerpt of the newspaper report that said "the virus had sneaked into our airports, our trains, our workplaces and our homes" by the time Mr Johnson chaired a COBRA meeting on 2 March.

"This virus has hit countries around the world," the Department of Health said. "It is ridiculous to suggest that coronavirus only reached the UK because the health secretary and not the PM chaired a COBRA meeting."

Elsewhere in the rebuttal - which is over 2,000 words long - the government defended sending 279,000 items of personal protective equipment to China.

"The equipment was not from the pandemic stockpile," it said. "We provided this equipment at the height of their need and China has since reciprocated our donation many times over.

"Between 2 April and 15 April, we have received over 12 million pieces of PPE in the UK from China."

And the newspaper's claim that lessons were not learned from a pandemic rehearsal in 2016 were also dismissed by the Department of Health, which said it had been "extremely proactive" in implementing recommendations.

LONDON, April 16, 2020 .A cleaner wearing face mask leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, on April 16, 2020. (Photo by Tim Ireland/Xinhua) (Xinhua/ via Getty Images)

The emphatic denials came hours after Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said it was "grotesque" to suggest that the prime minister had skipped meetings "that were vital to our response to the coronavirus".

He told Sky's Sophy Ridge on Sunday: "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."

Despite Mr Gove's dismissal of The Sunday Times report, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the investigation "suggests that early on he was missing in action".

He told Ridge: "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 frontline NHS staff don't have the PPE, 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."