Apr 19, 2020 - World

Boris Johnson skipped five virus briefings in early days of pandemic

Photo: Kate Green/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A 5,000-word exposé by the Sunday Times of London — "38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster" — finds that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, distracted by personal turmoil and his Brexit victory lap, skipped five early crisis briefings (Cobra meetings) on the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Warnings issued in January and repeated in February fell on "deaf ears," according to the Sunday Times, with the lost time potentially costing thousands of British lives.

The big picture: The U.K. government held its first Cobra meeting on Jan. 24, sensing the looming threat as the virus had spread from China to at least six known countries.

  • Health Secretary Matt Hancock told reporters that the risk to the British public was "low," while a spokesperson for Johnson — who skipped the Cobra meeting — said the U.K. was “well prepared for any new diseases."
  • Johnson went on to skip four more Cobra meetings, distracted by mass flooding, the U.K.'s withdrawal from the European Union, a Cabinet shakeup and a countryside holiday with his fiancée, before finally attending one on March 2.

Meanwhile, scientists like Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson were sounding the alarm by mid-January. Ferguson sent the government a report on Jan. 25 warning that the virus' infectivity could be higher than the Spanish flu's, and that there needed to be a 60% cut in the transmission rate — which could only be achieved with a national lockdown.

  • The warning went unheeded, and officials who attended a Cobra meeting that same day continued to express confidence that the U.K. was prepared.

What they're saying: "There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,” a senior adviser to Downing Street told the Sunday Times about Johnson skipping Cobra meetings. “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings."

  • "He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”

Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, compared the U.K.'s response to that of Singapore's, which curbed the spread of the virus early on.

  • “The interesting thing for me is, I’ve worked with Singapore in 2003 and 2009 and basically they copied the U.K. pandemic preparedness plan. But the difference is they actually implemented it," Hibberd told the Sunday Times.

Between the lines: Emergency planners and scientists told the Sunday Times that the U.K. had been well-funded and prepared to manage a potential pandemic after 9/11, but that years of austerity after the financial crisis severely depleted emergency stockpiles and training programs.

The other side: Cabinet minister Michael Gove insisted on Sunday that it's normal for a prime minister to miss Cobra meetings and that whoever chairs the meetings reports to Johnson.

  • "The prime minister is aware of all of these decisions and takes some of those decisions," Gove said. "You can take a single fact, wrench it out of context, whip it up in order to create a j’accuse narrative. But that is not fair reporting.”

What's next: As will likely be the case in the U.S., there will one day be an investigation into the lack of preparation during the "lost" five weeks between Jan. 24 and March 2, per the Sunday Times.

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