Quoting a Whitehall source, the Times claimed Boris Johnson’s administration dragged their feet and “missed the boat on testing and PPE” (personal protective equipment).
The article also claimed the Johnson administration “just watched” as the death toll mounted in Wuhan, China and the prime minister did not attend five meetings of the key government’s key Cobra committee in the build-up to the coronavirus outbreak.
In a lengthy blog posted on Gov.uk, a government spokesman 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.
“This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice.
“The Government has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives.
“Our response has ensured that the NHS has been given all the support it needs to ensure everyone requiring treatment has received it, as well as providing protection to businesses and reassurance to workers.
“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 tone of the statement, posted on the official gov.uk website, was much more aggressive than that used by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove on Sunday morning TV appearances when he described the article as “off beam”, PA Media reports.
Gove had confirmed the Sunday Times report that the PM had not attended five meetings of the key Government committee Cobra in the run-up to the crisis, but insisted this was not unusual.
That stance was echoed by the Government spokesman who said: “It is entirely normal and proper for Cobr to be chaired by the relevant secretary of state.
“At this point the World Health Organisation had not declared Covid-19 a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’, and only did so only on January 30.
“Indeed, they chose not to declare a PHEIC the day after the Cobr meeting.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News: “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.”