Is it unusual for a PM to skip Cobra meetings? | Politics

It was David Cameron who expanded the Cobra emergency planning system when he was prime minister, telling officials he wanted to be “one step ahead” of crisis events. His successor, Theresa May, was reluctant use it at first because she disliked a structure that had been used to assert authority over the Home Office she once ran.

The charge against Boris Johnson is that he did not want to turn up at all, skipping five Cobra meetings that discussed coronavirus in January and February and only chairing his first on 3 March, several weeks after the scale of the crisis had become apparent.

Situated in the basement of the Cabinet Office, not far from Churchill’s war rooms, the Cobra suite of meeting rooms is the closest thing to a White House situation room that Whitehall has. Holding a Cobra meeting in front of the bank of screens conveys urgent action like nothing else in British politics.

Civil servants caution that Cobra is not necessarily at the heart of how British government should be run. It was designed – after Britain watched West Germany’s hapless response to the 1972 Munich hostage crisis – to give a cross-government focus on an emergency incident, a terror attack or a mass-casualty disaster. Officials say it is not part of the normal Whitehall machine.

Some of its meetings, which tend to be hardly reported, are attended only by civil servants. Others are chaired by departmental ministers – Amber Rudd, when home secretary, chaired a Cobra meeting during the Skripal crisis, for instance. The presence of the prime minister is by no means necessary, although in each case the decision to hold a lower-level meeting should have been signed off by No 10.

The system is designed to be resilient, so in theory it does not matter who chairs it: the brief is so detailed for whoever takes the meeting that they can lead the ministers and officials present “however stressed they are”. As the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said: “It is perfectly normal for the prime minister to delegate to the health secretary, or whoever the relevant secretary of state is, to chair Cobra. This is a normal, proper course of government.”

But as Gordon Brown’s former press aide Damian McBride pointed out over the weekend, during a foot and mouth crisis in 2007, Brown “didn’t just attend every Cobra meeting, he chaired them all”. That may have said a lot about Brown’s approach to running government, to the point where he micromanaged detail, but it also showed a prime minister ready to engage with the issue at hand.

Chairing a Cobra meeting is a prime minister’s choice, former officials say, and it is one way of highlighting the need for an early cross-government focus on a crisis such as coronavirus. Instead the government has repeatedly looked like it is behind the curve, as shown by the desperate attempts to ramp up testing, the calls for ventilator manufacturers to come forward, and the struggles to ensure there is enough protective equipment for NHS staff.

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