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The Times Report: PM Skipped Five Cobra Meetings on COVID-19, Tories Ignored Warnings on PPE, Austerity to Blame

“We could have been Germany but instead, we were doomed by our incompetence, our hubris and our austerity.”

Boris Johnson ignored five Cobra meetings surrounding the growing threat of the coronavirus amongst a wide-ranging series of negligent and incompetent decisions during the early days of the COVID-19 crisis a shocking report from The Times has revealed.

The Prime Minister, who has long been criticised for his reluctance to give his full attention to the role, missed meetings both in January and February, even when it became apparent that there was a major threat to world public health.

By February 10th, the coronavirus was considered more deadly than SARs and by February 21st over 2,000 people were already dead, with outbreaks in Japan, South Korea and aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

The report from The Times makes it abundantly clear that Johnson simply did not wish to attend the meetings, skipping one to attend a lunar new year dragon eyes ritual to celebrate the Chinese New Year on January 24th. 

Obviously more important

By the 24th the UK had already implemented screenings at borders or onboard flights coming from affected regions in China. On the same day, the Lancet published an investigation into the new virus entitled “Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China” penned by several Chinese professors. Yet again on the 24th, Britain’s Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College’s School of Public Health had compiled a report which he sent to ministers and officials that stated the coronavirus had an infection rate between 2.6 and 3.5, a rate that was highly alarming given that the 1918 Spanish Flu had a rate between 2.0 and 3.0. Despite the warning signs, Matt Hancock left the same meeting stating that the threat to the UK was “low”.

The first cases of the virus were found in Britain just five days later. As of this morning, over 15,000 British citizens have died in hospitals of COVID-19 with the real number of dead clearly much higher.

“I think from the early days in February, if not in late January, it was obvious this infection was going to be very serious and it was going to affect more than just the region of Asia. I think it was very clear that this was going to be an unprecedented event.”

Sir Jeremy Farrar, infectious disease specialist, BBC

Four other meetings were skipped to prioritise aspects of Johnson’s private life, Brexit and the cabinet reshuffle. Johnson spent two weeks at a country retreat with Carrie Symonds. Despite the WHO declaring a global emergency on January 30, the UK telling it’s citizens to leave China on February 4th and Johnson speaking with China’s President Xi Jinping on the 18th, the Prime Minister didn’t attend another Cobra meeting until March 2nd, five weeks after the first meeting. Johnson left Matt Hancock to chair in his absence. 

“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.”

Government advisor, The Times

Speaking with scientists, academics, doctors, emergency planners, public officials and politicians, The Times report finds that despite government propaganda, the UK was ill-equipped to deal with a major pandemic, stockpiles of PPE being either in short supply or out of date thanks to a decade of austerity. Training of key workers was on hold for two years in anticipation of contingency for no-deal Brexit.

“We were the envy of the world but pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years when there were more pressing needs.”

The Times source

The last time that a major pandemic was war-gamed in 2016, the findings were that the NHS would collapse through a lack of PPE and ventilators. A list of recommendations to improve the situation were ignored, sources stating that the government attempting to prepare for no-deal Brexit drained resources from pandemic planning.

Despite the documented need for PPE, no effort was made to procure gowns and face masks even at the last opportunity, the government instead sending over 250,000 items from the PPE stockpile to China. While the gesture would normally be a welcome one of international assistance, with Britain’s own stocks dwindled and no plans at replacement, it can only be seen as misguided at the absolute best.

“We should have communicated with every commercial testing laboratory that might volunteer to become part of the government’s testing regime but that didn’t happen”

The Times source

There was a clear urgency to the situation in January and February with it becoming obvious that a major worldwide pandemic was underway. The Conservative government’s negligence and refusal to accept clearly evident facts, under a physically and mentally absent Prime Minister, led to calls of alarm being ignored. No department was ready, no plans were activated.

Treating the virus like the flu, the government became increasingly focused on “herd immunity”, their attempts to ensure that huge numbers of the population became infected and “immune”, despite no evidence that those already having the virus becoming immune and no vaccine even on the horizon.

The early proponents of herd immunity were said to be Chris Whitty, Dominic Cummings, Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson, all now denying the fact after it became clear that the policy would be a death sentence for hundreds of thousands to British citizens.

“The strategy of the British government in minimising the impact of COVID-19 is to allow the virus to pass through the entire population so that we acquire herd immunity, but at a much-delayed speed so that those who suffer the most acute symptoms are able to receive the medical support they need, and such that the health service is not overwhelmed and crushed by the sheer number of cases it has to treat at any one time.”

Robert Peston, ITV

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated at the time that the mortality rate of the coronavirus was 3.4%. With the current population of the United Kingdom standing at just over 66 million, if the top estimate of 95% of the British public were exposed to the disease and the mortality rate remained at 3.4% then over 2 million people would have been dead.

Boris Johnson and the Conservative government are guilty of at least misconduct in a public office, yet that charge does not even begin to encompass the level of incompetence, arrogance, vindictiveness, malfeasance and plain simple stupidity that has marked the British response to COVID-19. This trail of ineptitude did not begin in January, it began in May of 2010 with the election of the Conservative Party to power.

For a decade the Tories have wrought destruction on Britain’s public services, decimating the underpaid and underfunded NHS, depriving the service of needed equipment, training and staff. For all of Boris Johnson’s applause at the door of Number 10, let us never forget that he was within months of selling the NHS to Donald Trump. For all we are told to feel sympathetic to the recovering PM, let us remember it was his own hubris that placed him in a hospital in the first place.

Any decent and conscientious Prime Minister and government would immediately fall on their sword following this morning’s devastating report in The Times, yet we have learned from long experience that Boris Johnson and this government lack either morals or any feelings of responsibility toward the British public. Far from being mere misconduct, their actions are tantamount to manslaughter on a massive scale.

There must be a full and independent investigation into the actions of the Conservative government during the crisis that is empowered to bring criminal charges where necessary against members of the cabinet, including the Prime Minister. Individuals are serving in this government who have blood on their hands and they must now answer. It must not be another Hillsborough, Orgreave or Grenfell style whitewash.

With 50 NHS staff having already been killed during the crisis alongside the many thousands of members of the British public who have also lost their lives, the least that the nation now owes them is justice.

“I had watched Wuhan but I assumed we must have not been worried because we did nothing. We just watched. A pandemic was always at the top of our national risk register — always — but when it came we just slowly watched. We could have been Germany but instead, we were doomed by our incompetence, our hubris and our austerity.”

The Times source

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