Gove defends Boris Johnson as concerns mount about coronavirus 'mistakes'

Michael Gove has defended the Prime Minister’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak after revelations that Boris Johnson failed to attend five emergency meetings preparing for the pandemic to hit the UK.
Michael Gove has defended Boris Johnson's absences from Cobra meetings.Michael Gove has defended Boris Johnson's absences from Cobra meetings.
Michael Gove has defended Boris Johnson's absences from Cobra meetings.

The Cabinet Minister said that Mr Johnson had been “inspirational” during the crisis, as opposition MPs raised concerns about “serious mistakes” made as the country prepared to cope with the virus.

Mr Gove also denied the government has plans to ease the coronavirus lockdown within weeks after claims some schools and businesses could re-open in May.

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Defending Mr Johnson against allegations he had been “missing in action” on Sunday politics programmes, Mr Gove said a report in the Sunday Times about the Prime Minister’s absences were “off-beam”.

Speaking on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, he said: “The idea that the Prime Minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus, I think is grotesque. The Prime Minister took all the major decisions.

“Nobody can say that the Prime Minister wasn't throwing heart and soul into fighting this virus. His leadership has been clear. He's been inspirational at times.”

The Sunday Times report claimed a number of opportunities had been missed by the Government in January, February and March to try and lessen the impact of the gathering crisis. Controversy has also raged over the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS staff in England and Wales, and low levels of testing as the disease took hold.

However Mr Gove, on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show also said that “most Cobra meetings don’t have the Prime Minister attending”, and that all governments had made mistakes in handling the coronavirus outbreak.

He said: “This is a new virus, and by definition, none of us could know what were going to be the consequences of this virus. Countries across the world have had to move at pace to deal with this challenge. All governments make mistakes incuding our own. We seek to learn and improve every day.

“At the moment, the most important thing to do is to improve our response. It is the case that we had preparations for a pandemic and we’ve adjusted them in the light of scientific advice to keep the British public safe.”

Today Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “There are serious questions as to why the Prime Minister skipped five Cobra meetings throughout February, when the whole world could see how serious this was becoming.

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“And we know that serious mistakes have been made, we know that our front-line NHS staff don't have the PPE, that they've been told this weekend that they won't necessarily have the gowns which are vital to keep them safe. We know that our testing capacity is not at the level that is needed.

“We know that the ventilators that many hospitals have received are the wrong types of ventilators and there are big questions as to whether we went into this lockdown too slowly, and now we hear the Prime Minister missed five meetings at the start of this outbreak.

“It suggests that early on he was missing in action.”

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford added: “The reports of complacency and negligence around the UK government's immediate response to the coronavirus pandemic are jaw-dropping.

“We have been working constructively during this health emergency and we will continue to do so, however no government is above scrutiny.

“There are a number of legitimate questions that need to be put to the UK government around its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.”

On claims that lockdown measures could soon be lifted with a three-stage “traffic light” plan that would see outlets like DIY stores and garden centres reopen, and some pupils go back to school in mid-May, Mr Gove said it did not exist, while Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said no decision had been made on schools opening again.

Mr Gove said: “It is the case that we are looking at all of the evidence, but we have set some tests which need to be passed before we can think of easing restrictions in this lockdown.

"It is entirely understandable, of course, that there should be a public debate about how we approach these difficult choices."

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Mr Williamson took to Twitter to say: “No decision has been made on when we will reopen schools. I can reassure schools and parents that they will only reopen when the scientific advice indicates it is the right time to do so.”

However writing in the Mail on Sunday, Labour’s new leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised the government’s actions overall for being “too slow”, and added: “Other countries have begun to set out a road map to lift restrictions in certain sectors of the economy and for certain services, especially social care, when the time is right.

“This of course must be done in a careful, considered way with public health, scientific evidence and the safety of workers and families at its heart. But the UK Government should be doing likewise.”

Vaccine

Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said he was “optimistic” about finding a vaccine for the Covid-19 coronavirus with advances in science.

But he acknowledged “the truth is we don't have another vaccine for any other human coronavirus” and said finding a safe and effective treatment for the latest strain was “not a given”.

He said: “I hope we would have a vaccine towards the end of this year - but that's a vaccine in a vial, it's a vaccine that we believe to be safe, a vaccine we think might be effective.

“I think it's crucial to realise having a vaccine in itself, in say a million doses, which you know to be safe and you believe to be effective. That is not the end game.

“The end game is making sure that it is truly effective. It's effective in the elderly, effective in young children, effective right across the age group in all populations. And then you have to manufacture that in billions of doses to administer them to the world.

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“That is an enormous scientific challenge, it's also an enormous logistics and delivery challenge.”

Mr Gove also said Mr Johnson was “recovering well” after being diagnosed with coronavirus. He is now recuperating at his country estate Chequers.