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Number 10 accuses Sunday Times of ‘falsehoods and errors’ after claims government was too slow to act on coronavirus

Downing Street has hit back at the weekend’s damning Sunday Times investigation.

4 min read

Downing Street has hit back at newspaper claims that it was too slow to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

An unprecedented 2,000-word blog post said a damning article in The Sunday Times, which accused Boris Johnson of dodging key meetings in the early stages of the crisis, “contains a series of falsehoods and errors”.

An investigation by the paper’s Insight team suggested that the UK had failed to adequately prepare for the pandemic.

It said Mr Johnson did not attend the first five meetings of the Government’s emergency Cobra committee on the outbreak during January and February, claiming he was distracted by events in his personal life and had spent 12 days of the month out of London.

Pandemic preparations were also reported to have been neglected in favour of planning for a no-deal Brexit, while the UK also exported protective equipment stocks to China in the early phases of the outbreak.

The article also said the Government had been slow to mobilise private labs in expanding testing for the virus across the country.

Lesssons from a 2016 government-wide pandemic preparedness exercise were meanwhile said to have not been fully implemented amid funding pressure on the health service.

But a Downing Street spokesperson said: "This article contains a series of falsehoods and errors and actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work which was going on in government at the earliest stages of the coronavirus outbreak.”

They added: "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 Government has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives.

"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."

In an unusual move, the Government also issued a detailed rebuttal to several of the claims made in The Sunday Times report.

"It is entirely normal and proper for COBR to be chaired by the relevant Secretary of State" - government blog post on The Sunday Times

Responding to claims the Government “brushed aside” the threat of coronavirus in a meeting in the third week of January, the Department of Health said: “At a very basic level, this is wrong. The meeting was on the fourth Friday in January. The article also misrepresents the Government’s awareness of Covid 19, and the action we took before this point. Health Secretary Matt Hancock was first alerted to Covid 19 on 3 January and spoke to Departmental officials on 6th Jan before receiving written advice from the UK Health Security Team.

“He brought the issue to the attention of the Prime Minister and they discussed Covid 19 on 7 January. The government’s scientific advisory groups started to meet in mid-January and Mr Hancock instituted daily coronavirus meetings. He updated Parliament as soon as possible, on January 23rd.”

The post also rejected claims it is “unusual” for Mr Johnson to be absent from Cobra crisis meetings, saying it was “wrong” to claim the summits are always chaired by the Prime Minister himself.

The post said: “It is entirely normal and proper for COBR to be chaired by the relevant Secretary of State. Then Health Secretary Alan Johnson chaired COBR in 2009 during H1N1. Michael Gove chaired COBR as part of No Deal planning. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps chaired COBR during the collapse of Thomas Cook. Mr Hancock was in constant communication with the PM throughout this period.”

And they hit out at the report’s finding that the UK had sent 279,000 items of personal protective equipment to China in the early days of the outbreak.

The Government said: “The equipment was not from the pandemic stockpile. We provided this equipment to China at the height of their need and China has since reciprocated our donation many times over. Between April 2-April 15 we have received over 12 million pieces of PPE in the UK from China.”

Labour on Sunday said ministers had “serious questions” to answer over the article’s findings.

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News: “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."

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