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Sadiq Khan Felt "Winded" By Covid Spread After Weeks Shut Out Of Cobra Meetings

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan arriving to give evidence at the Covid Inquiry (Alamy)

5 min read

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has told the Covid Inquiry he felt “almost winded” when he was informed of the scale of Covid’s spread in London at a high-level meeting in March 2020, after weeks of his team asking government officials for him to be invited to discussions.

Khan said he was “kept in the dark” about the virus and was left with a feeling of a “lack of power” and “influence” in the early days of the pandemic. 

The Mayor of London was speaking ahead of Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, who described the government’s approach to the pandemic as “massively centralised” and felt that areas like Manchester were “simply bypassed”.

The Mayor of London attended a Cobra meeting on 16 March just days before the national lockdown was called, where he said he was “told for the first time” by then prime minister Boris Johnson and other officials “how bad things were”. He recalled Johnson using phrases such as “this is the biggest challenge we’re going to face since the Second World War”.

The meeting followed three other such gatherings earlier in March, to which Khan’s team had made appeals for him to attend. 

Khan told the inquiry that he had a meeting with then chief medical officer Chris Whitty the week before, when he was left feeling that “it was quite clear, it was coming our way this virus”. 

At the 16 March Cobra meeting, Khan was informed of more details such as the number of cases in Intensive Care Units in London. 

He told the inquiry: “I’ve been kept in the dark as the elected Mayor of London, and I felt almost winded in relation to what was happening in London, but also realising there are things we could have done in relation to some of these issues.

“I was alarmed by what I was being told in relation to where we were and where we may go to.

“I will not forget that sort of feeling of lack of power, lack of influence, not knowing what's happening in our city.” 

According to the Institute for Government, Cobra is how the government’s civil contingencies committee is referred to when it is convened to examine matters of a national emergency or major disruption. 'COBR' is the acronym for the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms in Westminster.

An extract of Khan’s witness statement provided to the inquiry, and published earlier this month, details his attempts to secure invites to Cobra meetings earlier in March, as he said that the capital was “clearly one of the most at-risk places in the country due to its large number of airports and international travellers and high-density population”.

Khan’s team had been in touch with No10 ahead of meetings on 2 March and 12 March, however invitations were not extended. The oral evidence today also contained details of a meeting on 9 March, where similar requests were made on behalf of Khan. 

The London mayor, who has experience of attending Cobra meetings both as a minister under Gordon Brown, and during his tenure as Mayor of London since 2016, told the inquiry there’s “nothing magic” about the meetings named after the rooms, but they are “really important”. 

“When Theresa May was prime minister in 2017 there were a number of Cobras I was invited to to do with the terrorist attacks in London, to do with Grenfell, and it's a really useful forum for colleagues to come together," he continued. 

“Politicians, experts in their own field, people who live across the country to provide their expertise to discuss ideas.” 

Also pointing to meetings he had attended under Liz Truss’ premiership in relation to the death of the Queen, Khan added: “Cobra in the past and since has worked incredibly well as this place to discuss various responses to prepare for civil emergencies.” 

Burnham later referred to his own experiences of chairing meetings during the Swine Flu crisis, when he was health secretary under Gordon Brown. 

Burnham told the inquiry that mayors wanted to be involved in the “structured environment” of Cobra meetings “where serious issues could have been properly raised”. 

“I chaired it during swine flu,” Burnham said. “And it was a very open environment, it wasn’t a small number of people meeting in tidal secrecy and keeping it all to themselves.”

He went on to say that there was “certainly” a practical way in which metro mayors could have engaged with the meetings in the early days of the crisis. “It should have happened,” he added.

Burnham described the government at the time of the pandemic as “massively centralised”. Recalling the time that local testing was moved to Manchester Airport, Burnham said: “That location was chosen without any consultation with us. 

“The airport might make sense if you’re sitting in an office in Downing Street or in the Cabinet Office.”  

He added: “If you live in Oldham or Rochdale you can’t easily get to Manchester Airport, but that was not understood.”

According to the inquiry's schedule, former health secretary Matt Hancock and ex-deputy prime minister Dominic Raab are also due to give evidence this week, as well as serving cabinet minister Michael Gove

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