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Boris Johnson and his ministers criticized for response to coronavirus threat

A front page of the Camden New Journal newspaper with a coronavirus related headline hangs stuck with other pages on the closed doors of a restaurant, unable to open due to the coronavirus lockdown, in central London, on Monday.
A front page of the Camden New Journal newspaper with a coronavirus related headline hangs stuck with other pages on the closed doors of a restaurant, unable to open due to the coronavirus lockdown, in central London, on Monday.Matt Dunham/Associated Press

LONDON - The coronavirus epidemic in Britain has reached the blame phase, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his ministers coming under criticism that they underestimated the threat, were slow to act and are bungling the response.

Over the weekend, the most-talked-about article was a Sunday Times report, headlined "38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster," which revealed that Johnson failed to attend five high-level emergency meetings called to prepare for the outbreak in January and February.

The most damning, most tweetable quote came from an anonymous source, described as a "senior adviser to Downing Street," who complained that Johnson "didn't chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn't work weekends. . . . There was a real sense that he didn't do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be."

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The Sunday Times painted Johnson as deeply involved with Brexit in January, as distracted by his complicated personal life, his divorce and engagement in February, and as showing insufficient attention to detail until the first wave was rushing toward Britain in March.

Johnson's aides and ministers have scrambled to defend the sidelined prime minister (and themselves) against charges they fumbled the great test presented by the virus. The Health Ministry issued a remarkable 2,100-word "Response to the Sunday Times Insight Article," which charged that the newspaper was guilty of "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."

And yet, Michael Gove, one of the top ministers charged with orchestrating a response to the coronavirus, did confirm Sunday a central charge in the article that Johnson had missed the five emergency meetings.

Gove waved it away by saying that chairing meetings is not important, that the prime minister's presence was not essential, and that Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) meetings are often run by the relevant minister in charge of the topic under discussion.

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But Johnson's critics said this was not a winter flood in the Midlands. It was the greatest threat to Britain since World War II, according to the government itself.

Gove stressed that Johnson had been "at the helm" throughout the initial response.

At a Sunday evening news conference at 10 Downing Street, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, repeated the refrain that Johnson had been "leading our nation's effort to combat the coronavirus."

Since contracting the virus himself, of course, Johnson has clearly been absent. He announced Britain's version of a lockdown on March 23 - later than many countries in continental Europe. Since then, he has spent 26 days away from his duties, first sick and in self-isolation, then in a hospital ward and an intensive care unit, and now in recovery at the prime minister's official countryside retreat, where aides say he is not working.

There is mounting criticism that his government, which last week extended a lockdown for another three weeks, has not been transparent about its shortfalls or what might come next.

In addition to what critics say was a slow initial response, the government has been flayed for its failure to have ready large numbers of mechanical ventilators, for the soaring numbers of deaths in nursing homes, for inadequate testing of nurses and doctors, and for an ongoing shortage of the protective visors, masks, gloves and especially gowns for front-line medical workers.

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Johnson tried to rally automotive companies and vacuum-cleaner makers last month to pivot to ventilator assembly. But little has come of that effort. The Financial Times described it as "plagued by disjointed thinking that sent volunteer, non-specialist manufacturers down the wrong track, designing products clinicians and regulators so far deemed largely unsuitable for treating Covid-19 patients."

Meanwhile, a shipment from Turkey of 400,000 protective gowns, scheduled to arrive Sunday, has been delayed, causing further embarrassment and threats by National Health Service workers that they might not show up to work.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, told the BBC that the medical system is going through 150,000 gowns a day. "What we really need to get to is from the current rather hand-to-mouth approach to where sustainable supplies consistently and reliably arrive," he said.

In its rebuttal to charges that Johnson and his government "brushed aside" the threat posed by the virus, the Health Ministry produced its own timeline and pushback.

The ministry said Health Secretary Matt Hancock was first alerted to covid-19 on Jan. 3. It said Hancock briefed Johnson on Jan. 7 and updated Parliament on Jan. 23. The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" on Jan. 30, and the first United Kingdom case was confirmed on Jan. 31, the ministry said.

The government said the suggestion that there was scientific consensus in late January that this was going to be a pandemic that killed tens of thousands in Britain was "plainly untrue." The rebuttal stated that the government's labeling of the public health risk as "low" in January and "moderate" in February reflected the realities at those times.

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The Health Ministry quoted Richard Horton, editor of British medical journal the Lancet, and other leading experts as suggesting in January that there was no need to panic and that the coronavirus had "similar characteristics to seasonal influenza," describing these views as proof that the government's step-by-step, go-slow response was proper.

England's deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, claimed Sunday that Britain has been an "international exemplar in preparedness" during the pandemic - even though the country has soaring mortality rates.

The Lancet editor replied that the government "is deliberately rewriting history in its ongoing COVID-19 disinformation campaign." Horton tweeted that he was speaking about media reporting on the virus, not the dangers of this new disease.

As for the claim that Britain has been an exemplar, Horton wrote, "When you see supposedly independent medical advisors to government tell what are manifest untruths to shore up a political regime whose credibility is rapidly collapsing, you have to say that those advisors have lost their integrity and our trust."

Johnson did not attend emergency COBR meetings on coronavirus in February, either - when he took a long working vacation with his pregnant fiancee.

The prime minister chaired his first such meeting on March 2, at which point the virus had already spread rapidly in Britain. The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11.

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“The government followed scientific advice at all times,” the Health Ministry said.