Coronavirus UK outbreak sees Boris hold Cobra meeting to coordinate response

A Downing Street spokesman said his decision to take charge of the meeting followed the sharp increase in the number of cases of Covid-19 in mainland Europe. The move also came after the Prime Minister inspected NHS preparations for a potential spread of the disease during a night-time visit to a hospital in the Midlands. Mr Johnson spoke to a string of staff and patients at Kettering General Hospital during the four-hour visit to witness night shifts in progress.

 But critics yesterday questioned why the Prime Minister, who is spending this weekend at his Chequers country retreat, was not holding the Cobra meeting sooner. 

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Our part-time prime minister needs to get a grip of this escalating situation quickly. It shouldn’t take another three days for this meeting to take place.”

Former chancellor George Osborne said Mr Johnson should be chairing a daily Cobra meeting, saying the public needed to know that ministers had the situation under control.

“The British Government now needs to go onto a ‘war footing’ with the coronavirus: daily NHS press briefings, regular Cobra meetings chaired by the PM, ministers on all major media shows,” Mr Osborne, who now edits the London Evening Standard, tweeted.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “With the NHS already so stretched, it’s gobsmacking that the Prime Minister has delayed chairing Cobra for so long.

“Johnson seems like he’d rather bury his head in the sand than hear for himself what the experts are saying and what his ministers are doing.”

Downing Street said officials from the Department of Health, Public Health England and other relevant departments were meeting on a daily basis to discuss the crisis.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock had been chairing a weekly Cobra meeting but twice-weekly gatherings of the Whitehall civil contingencies committee will begin next week.

The spokesman said: “The Prime Minister is keen to chair Cobra on Monday to ensure that everything that can be done is being done.”

The spokesman also disclosed that Mr Johnson had spent half of the night shift on Thursday visiting Kettering Hospital where senior clinicians had talked him through their preparations.

The latest criticism of Mr Johnson followed complaints he has failed to visit any of the most recently flood-hit areas of the country.

Mr Ashworth said the Prime Minister should now end the ban on ministers appearing on some news shows, including the Radio 4 Today programme, in the interests of ensuring the public is kept fully informed.

“People are understandably worried. Boris Johnson should drop his childish ban on ministers appearing on BBC radio programmes,” he said.

“The public deserves to hear what plans are in place to deal with the outbreak.”

Speaking in Downing Street last night, the Prime Minister said: “Our thoughts are very much with the family of the victim in Yokohama, the UK national, and the Foreign Office is doing all they can to support.

“But on the wider issue of coronavirus, which obviously is of great concern to people, I just want to reassure everybody and say that the NHS is making every possible preparation.

“I saw myself some of the work that is being done across the NHS to get ready for that just last night.

“As you can imagine, the issue of coronavirus is something that is now the Government’s top priority.

“I’ve just had a meeting with the Chief Medical Officer, the Health Secretary and other talking about the preparations we need to make.

“I just repeat the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, which I think is the best thing to get across – 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 is the best single piece of advice we can give.”

Asked about allegations that he was not acting quickly enough to respond to the outbreak, Mr Johnson said: “We’ve just had a meeting of all the Government ministers concerned and the Chief Medical Officer. 

“There has been a regular series of Cobra meetings to prepare for this eventuality. I think people are right to be concerned and they’re right to want to take every possible precaution.

“We will, in the course of the next few days, issue further advice about how to respond and how we’re going to deal with any potential outbreak of the illness.

“But as I say, the best thing people can do to prevent the spread of coronavirus is wash your hands.”

Asked about suggestions that the victim who died of the disease should have been airlifted back to the UK sooner, the Prime Minister added: “We were following the best medical advice. 

“We very much regret the loss of life of the individual concerned but we think the best thing to do is not to 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.

“That’s the principle that we’re adopting. We’re meeting continually to deal with this.

“And I just want the public to understand that the NHS is a fantastic system.

“I saw what preparations are being made, I was in Kettering General Hospital looking at the coronavirus pod that they have there and looking at the preparations the NHS is already getting under way.

“But the best way we can help our NHS is to take those elementary precautions ourselves.”

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