Boris Johnson will not hold coronavirus crisis meeting until Monday | Politics

Boris Johnson has been accused of shirking responsibility after it emerged he will not hold an emergency Cobra committee meeting on the coronavirus outbreak until Monday and is spending the weekend at his country retreat, Chequers.

Despite No 10 claims that the prime minister is keen to “check” everything is being done to prepare as the virus spreads through Europe, he will not chair the meeting for three days and no details of his engagements over the weekend have been released.

At the end of another turbulent day, with the number of new cases outside China surging, Johnson gave a brief statement. He said the government’s thoughts were with the family of the British man from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan who had died, and the Foreign Office was supporting his family.

He said the government was treating the virus as a “top priority” and urged people to try to contain its spread by washing their hands.

The meeting on Monday will be the first time he has chaired a Cobra meeting. Johnson said he had held a meeting with the chief medical officer for England and the health secretary about the situation.

The prime minister’s spokesperson said Johnson would receive daily updates from Friday to Sunday on a range of government issues from flooding to the coronavirus. He worked in Downing Street on Friday morning and head to Chequers for the rest of the weekend.

On Wednesday Jeremy Corbyn labelled Johnson a part-time prime minister for spending the parliamentary recess at Chevening, another government grace-and-favour mansion, while the coronavirus crisis continued and large parts of the country were affected by flooding.

The prime minister’s deputy official spokesman said: “If you look at the increased number of cases on mainland Europe, the prime minister is keen to check over on Monday to ensure that everything that can be done, is being [done].”

Asked what was preventing the prime minister from holding a meeting sooner, he said: “There are daily meetings between Public Health England and the Department for Health and interested departments, the chief medical officer, the chief scientific officer – those meetings happen daily and will continue to happen. The prime minister will hold a meeting of Cobra on Monday.”

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

Justin McCurry

Johnson visited doctors and nurses at Kettering general hospital overnight between 11pm and 3am to hear about how the NHS was preparing for the virus. No media were able to attend.

It has also emerged that Johnson is not planning on visiting any flooded areas over the weekend.

His spokesman added: “There was a visit from the environment minister yesterday. We are continuing to respond to the flooding and there is a significant amount of operational activity across the country.

“The Environment Agency teams continue to work 24 hours a day and we will continue to help those that are affected and help those people get back on their feet. The PM is receiving daily updates on this but as we’ve said before it’s been led out of Defra.”

Labour’s leadership contenders all criticised Johnson for the three-day wait for the Cobra meeting.

Rebecca Long-Bailey said: “The first duty of any prime minister is to protect people, but whether it’s protecting the public from natural disasters like floods, or public health emergencies like the coronavirus, Boris Johnson is consistently awol. Our NHS is already at breaking point. This government has to come up with an immediate plan to reassure us that it can cope.”

The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said Cobra must be convened as soon as possible and that the government has a responsibility to provide leadership and assurance on the country’s preparedness.

Lisa Nandy, who is also in the running to replace Corbyn, said the “prime minister is nowhere to be seen. The people of Britain deserve better than a part-time prime minister.”

The former chancellor George Osborne said ministers should give daily briefings to the press and appear on all major media channels.

“The public is fearful, wants information and needs to know their leaders have got a grip,” he said in a tweet.

The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, criticised the government’s ban on ministers appearing on certain BBC radio programmes, describing it as “childish”.

The prime minister’s deputy spokesman said they had spoken to a range of media outlets recently.

Johnson’s appearance at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday was the first time he had been seen in public for 12 days.

After spending the recess in Chevening, he attended Tuesday night’s lavish Winter Party, formerly known as the Black and White Ball, for party donors.

At the event in Battersea, south-west London, prizes were auctioned off, including two games of tennis with the prime minister.

Johnson said on Friday he wanted to reassure the public that the NHS was prepared for the virus.

He said: “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.

“I just repeat the advice of the chief medical officer which I think is the best thing to get across, that the most valuable thing we can all do to prevent the spread of coronavirus is to wash our hands for 20 seconds or more with hot water and soap. That’s the best single piece of advice we can give.”

He said the government’s thoughts were with the family of the British victim.

Asked if the British government should have acted sooner to repatriate and treat him in the UK, Johnson said the government was following medical advice.

He said: “We very much regret the loss of life of the individual concerned but we think the best thing to do is not move people around too much in the current situation, not to repatriate unless you can be absolutely sure that there isn’t going to be a spread and a contagion to this country.”

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