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Coronavirus: Michael Gove defends Boris Johnson over missing meetings... but SDLP warns 'complacency will cost lives'

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

The SDLP has accused the UK Government of complacency that "will cost lives and cannot be replicated here" after reports suggested the Prime Minster had not attended five meetings of the key Government Cobra committee in the build-up to the coronavirus outbreak.

A wide-ranging report in The Sunday Times said Boris Johnson missed five meetings of the key Cobra committee in the run-up to the outbreak and stated a number of opportunities were missed by the Government in January, February and March to try and lessen the impact of the gathering crisis.

Responding to the reports of what he called the "serious mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis", SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP said the Conservative Government's "slow response to the global pandemic underscores the need for a bespoke island-wide strategy".

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SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

He said: "The response to the coronavirus crisis isn't a sectarian political issue. It isn't a matter of scoring points, it's about saving lives. Reports about the British Government's complacency, however, leave very serious questions about crisis coordination across these islands.

"The SDLP is committed to constructively working with all parties in the Executive as well as the British and Irish Governments to manage our response to Covid-19 and save as many lives as possible. That is not a blank cheque for anyone to operate free from scrutiny when the stakes are so high. There is simply no margin for error.

"The SDLP, working closely with the other Westminster opposition parties, will hold the British Government to account. And in the Executive, we will work hard to make the case for a bespoke strategy for testing and tracing on this island that avoids the mistakes other administrations have made.

"Our primary focus remains preventing transmission of this virus and saving lives."

Earlier, Michael Gove denied suggestions the Government has drawn up plans for a three-tiered relaxation of lockdown.

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Michael Gove

Michael Gove

PA

Michael Gove

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also said criticism of Boris Johnson over his non-attendance at Cobra meetings was "grotesque". Mr Gove also 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.

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

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 coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 2.2 million people worldwide and more than 150,000 deaths have been recorded, including 16,060 in hospitals in the UK.

Mr Gove told Sky News's Sophy Ridge: "The idea that the Prime Minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus, I think is grotesque."

He later told BBC One's The Andrew Marr Show that "most Cobra meetings don't have the Prime Minister attending them".

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth later argued 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 the Ridge on Sunday show: "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 frontline 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."

Mr Gove told Sky News that Mr Johnson was "recovering well" at Chequers, his country estate, following treatment for Covid-19 in intensive care at St Thomas' Hospital in London earlier this month.

Belfast Telegraph