Johnson Government Offers Angry Rebuttal of U.K. Virus Response

Boris Johnson’s U.K. government issued a furious defense of his handling of the coronavirus crisis, as ministers said there was no imminent prospect of lifting the lockdown on the country.

After a report in the Financial Times criticizing the procurement of ventilators and a Sunday Times story which suggested Johnson failed to take the virus seriously in its early stages, the government published two separate rebuttals, one2,900 words long and the other2,100 words long.

“This article contains a series of falsehoods and errors and actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work which was going on in government,” the response to the Sunday Times began. It went on to question several of the assertions in the piece.

Since Johnson declared at the end of February that the virus was the government’s top priority, ministers have struggled to deliver on their own targets, with shortages of tests and protective equipment for health workers. By Sunday afternoon, 16,060 people with coronavirus had died in hospitals. The numbers who have died elsewhere, particularly in care homes, are still being counted.

U.K. Reports 5,850 New Coronavirus Cases, 596 Deaths

Some parts of the government’s response are still coming. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will on Monday launch a 1.25 billion-pound ($1.56 billion) support package for companies focused on research. It’s made up of a 500 million-pound loan fund for high-growth companies, where the government will match private investments with loans that convert to equity if they’re not repaid, and 750 million pounds of grants and loans for smaller firms.

Five Tests

Monday will also mark the moment companies can apply for support paying their staff through the Treasury’s furlough plan. The Resolution Foundation think tank estimated the plan would cover 8 million people. It said it expected almost half of workers in the hospitality and retail sectors will be furloughed.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, one of those leading the response while Johnson recovers from his Covid-19 infection, said the government will continue to refer tothe five tests set out by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on April 16 before deciding to lift restrictions. There are signs that the number of deaths is leveling off, but officials say it’s too early to call the peak of the virus.

Sunday saw newspaper reports that the government had drawn up a three-stage plan for ending the lockdown that could see schools reopen as soon as May 11. “That is not true, we have not made that decision,” Gove told the BBC. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson later told reporters: “I can’t give you a date.”

But Gove confirmed the idea of a staged easing of the lockdown when it does come, saying the hospitality industry would be “among the last” to exit. He said that a contact-tracing phone app, which would help Britain resume public life by enabling the government to see who people with the virus might have passed it to, was in beta testing.

Key Points

The day saw the government expressing frustration with the criticisms its faced, particularly in response to a Sunday Times investigation that suggested the U.K. had failed to prepare properly for the pandemic both in the long term and in the weeks running up to the lockdown. The newspaper reported:

  • Johnson didn’t attend five meetings of the government’s Cobra emergency committee concerning the virus in February
  • The prime minister was distracted by his personal life, spending 12 days of the month out of London, as his divorce went through a crucial stage and he informed his children of his plans to marry his pregnant girlfriend
  • Pandemic preparations had been neglected for years as the government cut spending and focused on Brexit
  • In late February, the U.K. exported some of its protective equipment stocks to China
  • Companies offering to make protective equipment and help with testing weren’t taken up on the offer until April

In response, Gove told the BBC it was “grotesque” that “our prime minister should be portrayed as not caring about this, when anyone who has seen him lead the response to this crisis will know that his focus, his energy, his determination, his passion has been to beat this virus.”

Williamson also defended Johnson. “The prime minister, from the moment that it became clear that there were challenges in terms of coronavirus developing in China, has absolutely been leading our nation’s effort to combat the coronavirus, making sure that resources or money is not a concern for any department, especially the health service,” he told the daily Downing Street press briefing.

Too Early

Speaking alongside Williamson, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries said it was too early to say whether the U.K. had responded well or badly to the virus compared to other countries, because the final totals of deaths weren’t yet known.

“Probably the most useful statistic going forward to compare between countries would be what we call an all-cause mortality,” she said. “It’s very difficult to draw direct comparisons.”

Harries also hinted at frustration with the discussions about protective equipment, calling for a “more adult and more detailed conversation” about the issue. She said there had been unprecedented demand and that supply had nevertheless been maintained.

Gove earlier conceded that there was currently a shortage of protective gowns, needed by health workers if they’re not to catch and spread the virus. The government later said that a flight ofsupplies from Turkey, due to arrive Sunday, had been delayed.

He also told Sky that the prime minister was “recovering well” and “in cheerful spirits.” He said Johnson had spoken to Raab on Friday, who passed on his instructions to the rest of the cabinet in a conference call on Saturday morning.

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