UK government hits back at Covid-19 criticism

Senior ministers dismiss reports highlighting failures in pandemic preparations

FILE PHOTO: Michael Gove arrives at Downing Street in London, Britain February 13, 2020. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo
Powered by automated translation

The UK government hit back at criticism of its coronavirus strategy on Sunday, including a 3,000-word rebuttal of a newspaper article that highlighted problems with its programme to build new ventilators.

Ministers went on the offensive after the media questioned the government’s preparedness for Covid-19, with the spotlight firmly on the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

They criticised shortages in protective clothing for frontline medical staff, low rates of testing and tracing, and the timing of the decision to bring in a lockdown.

Hospital deaths in the UK of patients with Covid-19 topped 16,000 at the weekend, out of more than 120,000 confirmed cases.

Ministers were unhappy with a report in The Sunday Times newspaper that said Mr Johnson missed five of the government's crisis meetings on the coronavirus in January and February.

Michael Gove, on of Mr Johnson's key lieutenants, said senior ministers commonly chaired the meetings and reported back to the prime minister.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said in a tweet that he had probably attended more of the crisis meetings than any other minister.

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

But Prof Sir David King, the chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007 under the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, said he could not recall a crisis meeting that was not attended by either of the prime ministers.

Mr Johnson is recuperating after becoming seriously ill with the virus, requiring three days in intensive care. He has been off work since March 27.

The opposition Labour party said there were “serious questions” about why the prime minister missed the meetings.

“It suggests early on he was missing in action,” its health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth told the broadcaster.

The government also issued a near 3,000-word rebuttal of an article in the Financial Times and tweets by its author.

It said the report contained “multiple inaccurate and misleading claims” about a programme to obtain new ventilators.

The government said before the surge in cases that it would need 30,000 ventilators to get through the crisis, but later reduced the number to 18,000.

Last month it sought help from some of the country’s largest manufacturers to build thousands of ventilators or modify existing designs.

The FT said the government was "plagued by disjointed thinking" that confused manufacturers.

The government defended its programme and said two new designs of ventilators were ready for use by the National Health Service, with 190 available to be used use.

The total ventilators now available has reached 10,600, an increase of about 2,000 in the last month.