Boris Johnson has faced renewed criticism about missing emergency meetings in the build up to the Covid-19 crisis.
The Prime Minister missed five consecutive meetings of the COBRA committee which coordinates the government response to national emergencies.
In May, a report claimed that Johnson missed the meetings as he was working on an as-of-yet unpublished biography of William Shakespeare. This has been denied by Number 10.
A tweet from GB News journalist Tom Harwood contrasted the criticism the prime minister received for missing five meetings with the reaction to Nicola Sturgeon, who also missed COBRA meetings at the beginning of the pandemic.
Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it Mostly True.
At the outset of Covid-19 emergency meetings were held of the Civil Contingencies Committee, often called COBR, or COBRA, after the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms. All four national leaders of the UK were invited to the meetings, which were for high-level coordination of the UK’s Covid-19 response.
The Prime Minister was not present at five of these early meetings. This was confirmed by government minister Michael Gove in an BBC interview on 19 April 2020.
Gove claimed it was normal for Johnson to miss such meetings. In a blog for the Institute For Government, senior fellow Catherine Hadden said it is not unusual for prime ministers not to attend, and not every COBRA meeting is automatically chaired by the prime minister.
She wrote: “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.”
Harwood’s claim suggests that Nicola Sturgeon missed six meetings of COBRA she had been invited to in the early stages of the pandemic.
Health secretary Jeane Freeman confirmed the Scottish Government was invited to these meetings. But the first minister did not attend until 2 March 2020, missing six of the early meetings.
Freeman said the first minister missing these meetings “was the norm”.
The COBRA meetings she missed took place on 24 and 29 January, and 5, 18, and 26 February.
Nicola Sturgeon has been heading the Scottish equivalent of the COBRA, called Scottish Government Resilience Room (SGoRR) meetings. These were held on 29 January, 17 February and 25 February. In response to a freedom of information request, the Scottish Government confirmed the first minister had attended two of these meetings.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True
The claim that Nicola Sturgeon also missed COBRA meetings is accurate. The first minister was attending meetings of the Scottish equivalent, SGoRR, around the same time, but only one meeting clashed with the Westminster committee.
It is fairly common for both the prime minister and first minister to delegate attendance at these meetings to relevant ministers, although questions have been raised about the appropriateness of missing meetings in such a crucial phase of the Covid-19 outbreak.
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