Michael Gove fails to deny PM missed five coronavirus Cobra meetings | World news

Michael Gove has declined to deny that Boris Johnson missed five consecutive emergency meetings in the build-up to the coronavirus crisis, or that the UK shipped protective equipment to China in February, as the government faced intense pressure over its response to the pandemic.

Pressed on a series of allegations about delays and failings as the virus started to spread from China, detailed in the Sunday Times, Gove said that some elements of the story were “slightly off-beam”, but repeatedly declined to say which.

Speaking after Gove on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show, Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said he had given “possibly the weakest rebuttal of a detailed expose in British political history”.

Ridge asked Gove, who holds the cabinet role of chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, three times whether it was true the UK sent hundreds of thousands of items of personal protective equipment (PPE) to China during February.

A shortage of PPE for NHS and care home staff has been a repeated criticism of the UK response to coronavirus, with the Guardian revealing on Friday that NHS staff had been told to wear plastic aprons if stocks of protective gowns ran out.

Asked about this, Gove said: “There are one or two aspects of the Sunday Times report that are slightly off-beam, but the most important thing to stress is that the fight against the coronavirus is an international effort.”

Asked what was incorrect about the story, Gove said: “I won’t go through, here, a point-by-point rebuttal of all the things in the Sunday Times story that are a little bit off-beam, but that will be done later.”

Pressed on the issue, he said there would be and “appropriate response” later, adding: “I think it’s important that we share facts in a transparent way, and those facts will be shared later today.”

Gove was also asked about the claim in the Sunday Times that Johnson missed five meetings of the government’s Cobra emergency committee during a period in February where he spent an entire parliamentary recess out of sight at his official country retreat of Chequers.

Prime ministers do not always chair Cobra meetings, but generally do during a crisis. The Sunday Times quoted one unnamed senior adviser as saying Johnson “didn’t work weekends”, and “there was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning”.

Gove rejected the charge of a lack of leadership, but did not explicitly deny that Johnson had missed the Cobra meetings.

It was wrong, he said, to argue that Johnson had been “anything other than energetic, focused, determined and strong in his leadership against this virus”.

“The idea that the prime minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus I think is grotesque,” Gove said.

Michael Gove.

Michael Gove. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

“The truth is that there are meetings across government. Some are chaired by the health secretary, some are chaired by other ministers, but the prime minister took all the major decisions.

“Nobody can say that the prime minister wasn’t throwing heart and soul into fighting this virus. His leadership has been clear, it’s been inspirational at times.”

World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on face masks has remained consistent during the coronavirus pandemic. It has stuck to the line that masks are for healthcare workers – not the public. 

“Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including Covid-19. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted,” the WHO has stated.

There is no robust scientific evidence – in the form of trials – that ordinary masks block the virus from infecting people who wear them. There is also concerns the public will not understand how to use a mask properly, and may get infected if they come into contact with the virus when they take it off and then touch their faces.

Also underlying the WHO’s concerns is the shortage of high-quality protective masks for frontline healthcare workers.

Nevertheless, masks do have a role when used by people who are already infected. It is accepted that they can block transmission to other people. Given that many people with Covid-19 do not show any symptoms for the first days after they are infected, masks clearly have a potential role to play if everyone wears them.

 Sarah Boseley Health editor

Speaking after Gove, Ashworth told the Ridge show that there were “serious questions as to why the prime minister skipped five Cobra meetings throughout February, when the whole world could see how serious this was becoming”.

He said: “And 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.”

In this context, he added, the knowledge Johnson had missed key meetings “suggests that early on he was missing in action”.

Johnson is back at Chequers, recovering from a bad case of coronavirus which saw him briefly placed in intensive care. Gove said the PM was “in cheerful spirits” and had talked on Friday, to Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, who is standing in for him.

Gove rejected the idea that on aspects of the response to the virus, including PPE and testing, the government had consistently been playing catch-up, arguing that it had instead been “considered”.

He said: “There is a temptation, of course, to act in certain circumstances because of understandable pressure from commentators and elsewhere. But our approach is to be guided by the science, and to move in a way that is not kneejerk but considered.”

Asked whether he could guarantee NHS and care staff would have all the PPE they needed, with new shipments arriving, Gove said that it was “the first priority of government” to try to do so.

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