‘Grotesque’ to criticise Boris Johnson over missing emergency coronavirus meetings, says Cabinet minister Michael Gove

It is "grotesque" to suggest that Boris Johnson "skipped meetings that were vital" to the UK's coronavirus response, a Cabinet minister has said.

A wide-ranging Sunday Times report detailed how the prime minister missed five meetings of the government's key Cobra committee as the health crisis was gathering pace.

It followed an investigation in The Sunday Times in which a Whitehall source claimed the Government “missed the boat on testing and PPE” (personal protective equipment) and “just watched” as the death toll mounted in Wuhan, China.

The newspaper also claimed the government missed a series of opportunities to try and lessen the impact of the outbreak in February and March.

The virus has now claimed the lives of more than 2 million people worldwide, including more than 16,000 in hospitals in the UK, according to latest figures.

Thousands more people are thought to have died in care homes and in the community.

Michael Gove sought to downplay the report, and defended the PM, saying Mr Johnson was "throwing heart and soul into fighting this virus".

Speaking on Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster added: "The idea that the prime minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus, I think is grotesque."

However, appearing on BBC One's The Andrew Marr Show, Mr Gove confirmed the PM did not attend five Cobra meetings in the run-up to the outbreak arriving in the UK, stating: "He didn't. But then he wouldn't.

"Because most Cobra meetings don't have the Prime Minister attending them."

Asked what was incorrect in the Sunday Times report, Mr Gove said: "I won't go through a point by point rebuttal of all the things in the Sunday Times story that are a little bit off-beam but that will be done later."

Earlier on Sunday, a spokesperson for Mr Johnson issued a pointed response to the claims made by the Sunday Times.

“The prime minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation," the spokesperson said.

Michael Gove said it was 'grotesque' to suggest the PM had 'skipped' Cobr meetings. Credit: PA

The claims came as the prime minister, who is recovering from coronavirus, was said to have been giving directions to ministers from the country retreat of Chequers – where he is recuperating.

The Number 10 response paints a different picture of the PM to the one depicted in the Sunday Times in the run-up to the outbreak as the newspaper quoted a senior Downing Street aide, who was not named, saying: “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there.

“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.”

PPE that frontline staff should be wearing. Credit: PA Graphics

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth argued that Mr Gove's line that one or two aspects of The Sunday Times story were off beam is "possibly the weakest rebuttal of a detailed expose in British political history".

He told Sky's Sophy Ridge on Sunday: "None of us expect the impossible, we understand that mistakes will be made in a crisis of this nature, but 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.

"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."

Boris Johnson chairing the morning Covid-19 Meeting in 10 Downing Street from self-isolation. Credit: PA

The report comes as controversy continued to grow over the insufficient levels of personal protection equipment (PPE) for frontline NHS staff, and criticism that not enough people were being tested for the killer virus.

However, a delivery of 84 tonnes of desperately needed personal protective equipment for front line NHS staff as they treat patients with coronavirus which was meant to arrive in the UK on Sunday has been delayed.

It is not currently known when the shipment - which includes 400,000 gowns - will arrive instead or what caused the delay.

A shipment of PPE was due to arrive in the UK on Sunday. Credit: PA

Appearing on Sunday's political programmes, Mr Gove also denied suggestions the Government has drawn up plans for a three-tiered relaxation of lockdown measures.

On Monday, the country will enter its fifth week in lockdown, with continued clamour for a relaxation of measures that have shut schools and businesses, scaled back transport and closed and parks and public spaces closed as Britons are advised to pay heed to social distancing guidelines.

The chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster poured cold water on suggestions a “traffic light” strategy is about to be brought in which would see some schools and businesses allowed to reopen in mid-May.

Mr Gove said ministers do not want to “take steps too early” despite the rate of infection appearing “to be flattening”.

Mr Gove told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: “We have stressed that the reporting in today’s newspapers that schools will reopen on May 11, that is not true, we have not made that decision.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson also denied a decision had been made to reopen schools.

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