Blistering report by a pro-government paper criticises British prime minister for missing crisis meetings and going on holiday as the pandemic established a foothold in the UK.
The government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is embroiled in a dispute with one of its key allies, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times newspaper, over the Conservative leader’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson who became seriously ill with the disease himself and needed treatment in an intensive care unit is reported to have ignored warnings about the potential scale of the pandemic, missed meetings to discuss the unfolding emergency, and did not the take action required to secure supplies for the British National Health Service (NHS).
The newspaper suggests that the inaction may have resulted in thousands of excess deaths with the UK on track to be one of the hardest hit countries in the world.
At the time of publication, the UK had confirmed just over 16,000 deaths and 120,000 cases of the virus.
According to the chronology put together by the Times, Johnson missed a meeting of ministers in January shortly after a Lancet study compared the novel coronavirus to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. At the time Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there was a ‘low’ risk the UK would get caught up in the outbreak.
At the time the government’s most pressing priority was ensuring the UK left the European Union on January 31.
Citing sources close to the prime minister, the paper says Johnson went on to miss four further emergency meetings on the unfolding crisis in February.
During this time the Conservative party leader reshuffled his cabinet and then went on a two-and-a-half week country holiday with his pregnant fiancee.
A source told the Sunday Times: “What you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends.
“There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”
When Johnson did finally grasp the seriousness of the situation, he initially seemed to favour a controversial herd immunity approach, which his experts seemed to have based on the idea that the coronavirus worked more like a flu than more deadlier diseases like SARS.
The Sunday Times, which is the most popular Sunday newspaper in the UK, is published by the Times of London, and is owned by right-wing Australian press mogul Rupert Murdoch.
His newspapers have traditionally been supporters of the Conservative party and Johnson in particular.
Such critical reporting of the prime minister has been rare and could be a sign of discontent within the conservative establishment.
Responding to the report, a spokesperson for the UK government said:
“This article contains a series of falsehoods and errors and actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work which was going on in government at the earliest stages of the Coronavirus outbreak.
“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 government also published a point-by-point rebuttal of the article by the Sunday Times, a rare move, which could be tacit acknowledgment of how damaging it considers the claims to be.
But blame is not being placed on Johnson’s shoulders alone. Many commentators have highlighted the role played by a ten-year-long campaign of austerity implemented by Johnson’s Conservative predecessors, in hindering the UK’s response to pandemic.
Critics of the government say that the policies stripped the NHS of its ability to deal with emergencies, like the one the country is currently experiencing.