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Questions over the prime minister’s coronavirus COBR absences are not straightforward

Questions about Boris Johnson’s role in the early days of the crisis will continue to be asked

The prime minister's decision to let the health secretary chair the first five coronavirus COBR meetings may have been for good reasons, but questions about Boris Johnson’s role in the early days of the crisis will continue to be asked, says Catherine Haddon

The 19 April Sunday Times Insight report was highly critical of the government’s handling of the early days of the Covid-19 crisis – so much so, and in so much detail, that the government posted a point-by-point rebuttal. In what the paper called the ‘lost 38 days’, the prime minister is reported to have missed five COBR high level crisis management meetings. The piece concluded that this was symbolic of his failure to grip the crisis at an earlier stage.

The government argues to the contrary, that the prime minister was in charge. But the prime minister's non-attendance of COBR is a question worth asking, and the issue of how quickly and how thoroughly he gripped the crisis in those all-important weeks is not a question the government can avoid.   

COBR can operate without the prime minister

The government is right to say that prime ministers do not automatically chair every COBR meeting. The civil contingency committee, COBR’s formal name, meets in both ministerial and official forms. In the initial stages of a crisis the chair can often be the minister for the department most heavily involved in the nature of that crisis, with the prime minister stepping in when he or she believes it necessary. If the government considered that the Covid-19 response should be led by the health department, then it can legitimately argue that the secretary of state for health was the right person to chair the earliest meetings. 

Prime ministers shouldn’t always jump in and take over whenever any crisis first takes hold. Announcing that a prime minister is chairing COBR can sometimes be a way to demonstrate that he or she is on top of an issue and taking action, when a meeting may not have been necessary at that time. Likewise, officials have warned that excessive COBR meetings can be just as unhelpful as a lack of them, as they get in the way of the necessary response. But coronavirus is not any crisis. The importance of those few weeks may become clearer in retrospect, but questions about Johnson’s role were being asked at the time.

The prime minister’s COBR absence raises fair questions about his grip on the emerging crisis

The government acknowledges that the prime minister did not chair a COBR meeting until March 2. His first appearance came after a week of growing criticism from opposition politicians and the media. 

But the bigger question is over the prime minister's overall level of involvement in the initial response. Does his absence from the chair equate to a lack of personal involvement in the rapidly changing situation? Was it part of a wider failure of government to fully appreciate the growing threat? Or, as the government’s rebuttal implies, was he in charge even while not chairing the meeting?

Responding to the Sunday Times article, the government argues that the health secretary was ‘in constant communication' with Johnson throughout the period and that the prime minister was ‘at the helm of the government response’. Probing what that means is important. Being kept informed of what was discussed at high level crisis response meetings is not the same as being in the room, responding to new information and challenging officials and experts on the decisions they were advocating, or asking questions no one else was yet asking.

A future coronavirus inquiry will need to look at when the prime minister took charge of the response

Johnson’s role in the growing crisis matters because prime ministers can play such an influential role – either politically or in pulling the government together. Tony Blair recalls the moment in the 2000 fuel protest crisis when he realised that ‘no one seemed to have much of an answer’. He convened urgent meetings with the police and with the oil companies, and then chaired COBR himself. During the foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001, Nick Brown, the minister for agriculture, led the UK response until Blair returned from an overseas trip and realised that ‘he had to step in.’ As Blair put it: ‘The only thing to do at a time like this is to show you are on top of it and give a general appearance of being in charge’. The big question is therefore not just what meetings Johnson chaired, but also what difference he made or could have made.

The government now needs to look ahead to the huge decisions coming down the track, not back at ones that have been made already. Johnson is still recuperating but will be back at the helm eventually. But any future inquiry into this government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak will look at when the prime minister received early advice, information and discussions, how he reacted, and how that affected the government’s response to the scale of the crisis. And that inquiry will also need to determine how an earlier COBR appearance by Johnson could have helped.

The government is determined to redress what it sees as an unfair, and at times incorrect, account, but questions over how, and when, a prime minister takes charge in a national crisis are fair. COBR doesn’t need to be chaired by prime ministers – but Boris Johnson’s role in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak is not a question he can avoid.

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