The British government has hit back at reports that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his administration were far too slow to respond to the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
Downing Street has accused the Sunday Times newspaper of “falsehoods” and “errors” after it published comments from a government source saying the administration “missed the boat on testing and PPE” (personal protective equipment).
The paper also said Mr Johnson missed five early emergency meetings about the coronavirus outbreak – something confirmed by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove.
But the spokesman said the newspaper “actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work which was going on in government at the earliest stages of the coronavirus outbreak”.
“This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice,” the spokesman said.
“The Prime Minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation.”
Mr Gove earlier described the article as “off beam” and insisted it was not unusual for the PM to miss meetings of the key government crisis committee, Cobra.
“The idea that the Prime Minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus, I think is grotesque,” he told Sky News.
“There were meetings across government, some of which were chaired by the Health Secretary, some by other ministers, but the Prime Minister took all 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 Johnson is recuperating after spending days in intensive care with the coronavirus at a London hospital early in April. A week ago, he admitted his battle with the deadly virus “could have gone either way”.
Mr Gove’s words were echoed by the government spokesman.
“It is entirely normal and proper for Cobra to be chaired by the relevant secretary of state,” he said.
“At this point the World Health Organisation had not declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern, and only did so only on January 30.
“Indeed, they chose not to declare a PHEIC the day after the Cobra meeting.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News there were “serious questions” as to why Mr Johnson skipped five Cobra meetings in February, “when the whole world could see how serious this was becoming”.
“We know that serious mistakes have been made, we know that our frontline NHS (National Health Service) 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.”
More than 16,000 people have died in Britain, which has the world’s fifth-highest national death toll of the pandemic.
The British government has faced criticism over shortages of PPE and what some say was the late timing of social distancing restrictions.