What is a Cobra meeting and who attends the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms?

Whenever there's a crisis in the UK, one thing that often swiftly follows is a Cobra meeting.

For example, one government response to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK is to hold more regular Cobra meetings.

To the public, a Cobra meeting is generally when members of the government meet to discuss the response to a given issue.

That is largely the case, however there is a little more detail than that...

Why are they called Cobra meetings?

Despite sounding as though it's named after a venomous breed of snake - which would be an appropriate metaphor given the purpose of the meetings - Cobra is actually an acronym for a series of rooms in the Cabinet Office in 70 Whitehall.

You'll sometimes see it referred to as COBR, which stands for: Cabinet Office Briefing Room.

The A is believed to stand for briefing room A, however it's unclear whether that's actually the case - room F was the most commonly-used when the meetings first began to take place.

While Cobra does refer to that set of rooms in the Cabinet Office, the term is shorthand for the 'Civil Contingencies Committee', which is the group of people who meet inside the rooms to discuss various issues.

When someone says "Cobra is meeting", what they actually mean is "members of the Civil Contingencies Committee are convening in the Cabinet Office".

According to the Institute for Government, the term was born when an emergency situation centre was developed for the government to review its response to the the 1972 miners’ strike.

Who attends Cobra meetings?

Unlike a Cabinet meeting - where frontbenchers meet the prime minister - there is no rigid register for who should attend a Cobra meeting and not even Boris Johnson has to attend.

The composition of any Cobra meeting depends on the issue that is to be discussed.

According to the Institute for Government, it's usually made up of officials and agency personnel, alongside ministers, from relevant departments and agencies.

For example, as the government discusses its response to the coronavirus outbreak, England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty attends.

On the other hand, following a terror attack Mr Whitty would not attend, but perhaps the UK's top police officer, Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, would.

The meetings are usually chaired by the most senior and most relevant minister in the room, plus the prime minister.

So it's likely that Prime Minister Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock are chairing coronavirus Cobra meetings.

What does Cobra do?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, flanked by Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, held a press conference to update the public on coronavirus following a Cobra meeting. Credit: PA

The purpose of a Cobra meeting is to discuss high-level coordination and decision-making in the face of a crisis, according to the Institute for Government.

The crisis could be a range of things, including natural disasters, terrorist attacks, major industrial accidents, and as coronavirus has demonstrated, threats to public health.

Chairing a Cobra meeting is often a good way for a prime minister to demonstrate to the public how he or she has a grip on a situation but the relevant people will usually already have been making decisions well before a meeting is called.

According to the Institute for Government, Cobra's purpose is to "keep ministers appraised of the situation, to ensure that the wider response of the government is coordinated, to record and disseminate key decisions and updates to all relevant ministers and officials, and to provide ministers and the prime minister with up to date information on the situation for any decisions that they may need to make".