Boris Johnson says coronavirus is 'top priority' as he defends three-day wait for Cobra meeting
Dealing with the outbreak of the coronavirus is now the Government's "top priority", Boris Johnson has declared, amid mounting criticism of the response from ministers.
The Prime Minister - who will chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee on Monday - said the health service was making "every possible preparation" for the virus as he rebuffed claims ministers have been slow to act.
Mr Johnson has come under fire over the timing of the Cobra meeting, with Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems demanding an immediate gathering of top ministers and officials.
There have also been calls for the Prime Minister to stop a long-running boycott of several media outlets, with former chancellor George Osborne among those urging the Government to communicate more clearly with the public.
But Mr Johnson broke his silence on Friday evening after the Foreign Office confirmed the death of a British man who had been on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off the coast of Japan.
Asked how concerned the British public should now be about the outbreak, Mr Johnson said: "Well obviously our thoughts are very much with the family of the victim in Yokohama, the UK national and the Foreign Office is doing everything they can to support.
"But on the wider issue of coronavirus, which obviously is of great concern to people, I just want to reassure everybody and say that the NHS is making every possible preparation.
"And I actually saw myself some of the work that's being done across the NHS to get ready for that, just last night.
"And as you can imagine the issue of coronavirus is something that is now the Government's top priority. And I've just had a meeting with the Chief Medical Officer, the Secretary of State for Health and others, talking about the preparations that we need to make."
'WASH OUR HANDS'
The Prime Minister said the "the most valuable" step the public could take to prevent the spread of the coronavirus was "to wash our hands for 20 seconds or more with hot water and soap".
Asked to respond to criticism of the decision to wait until Monday to chair a Cobra meeting, Mr Johnson said: "We've just had a meeting of all the government ministers concerened and the chief medical officer, and there's been a regular series of Cobra meetings to prepare for this eventuality."
And he added: "I think people are right to be concered and they're right to want to take every possible precaution. And we will, in the course of the next few days, be issuing further advice about how to respond and how we're going to deal with any protenital outbreak of the illness."
But, breaking a political truce that has seen Labour stay largely supportive of the Government's response, Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth took aim at the time taken to schedule the Cobra meeting.
He said: "Our part-time Prime Minister needs to get a grip of this escalating situation quickly. It shouldn’t take another 3 days for this meeting to take place."
And the Labour frontbencher added: "People are understandably worried. Boris Johnson should drop his childish ban on ministers appearing on BBC radio programmes. The public deserves to hear what plans are in place to deal with the outbreak.”
Conservative former chancellor George Osborne meanwhile tweeted: "The British Government now needs to go onto a ‘war footing’ with the coronavirus: daily NHS press briefings, regular COBRA meetings chaired by the PM, ministers on all major media shows. The public is fearful, wants information and needs to know their leaders have got a grip."
And the SNP's deputy Westminster leader Kirsty Blackman echoed the charge that Mr Johnson was "acting like a part-time Prime Minister".
She said: "Instead of relaxing in his lavish grace-and-favour country estate, Boris Johnson should get back to work and get a grip on the situation.
"When a crisis hits, people need confidence that their government is responding – Boris Johnson is utterly failing that basic test of leadership."
A Number 10 spokesman on Friday said of the Cobra meeting: "This is a response to the growing number of cases in Europe and need for PM to make sure everything that can be done is being done.”
And they defended the Government's ongoing boycott of some TV and radio shows, including Today, BBC's Newsnight and ITV's Good Morning Britain.
The spokesperson said: "Over the past weeks and months you will have seen the Heallth Secretary and the Chief Medical Officer do countless interviews and that won't change."]
Public Health England has said that most cases of coronavirus - now being referred to as COVID-19 - have appeared mild, with sympoms inlcuding coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath.
But officials are advising anyone who has returned from Iran, parts of Italy, South Korea or China's Hubei province in recent weeks to call NHS 111 and stay indoors.