London (CNN)A senior UK government figure has defended Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic, following a wide-ranging critique in the Sunday Times newspaper.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove described the Sunday Times piece — which reported that Johnson had missed five emergency meetings on the virus and accused the government of failing to order protective equipment or heed scientists’ warnings — as “off beam.”
“The idea that the Prime Minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus, I think is grotesque,” Gove told Sophy Ridge on Sky News on Sunday.
“The truth is that there were meetings across government, some of which were chaired by the Health Secretary, some by other ministers, but the Prime Minister took all major decisions,” said Gove.
“Nobody can say that the Prime Minister wasn’t throwing heart and soul into fighting this virus. His leadership has been clear. He’s been inspirational at times.”
Speaking later on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, Gove acknowledged that Johnson had not attended the five Cobra meetings but said this was not unusual since such meetings were usually led by the relevant Secretary of State.
Cobra is the colloquial name given to interdepartmental meetings in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room “A.” Because of the serious nature of these meetings, they are usually chaired by the PM or another senior minister.
Johnson first chaired a Cobra meeting on coronavirus on March 2.
Gove added that the Sunday Times article was using this information “out of context” and “whipped [it] up in order to create a ‘j’accuse’ narrative.”
The Sunday Times report also stated that a number of opportunities to reduce the impact of the pandemic had been missed by the UK government in January, February and March.
The government has been criticized over shortages of personal protective equipment for frontline health and social care workers and a slow start to testing for the virus.
Stocks of clinical gowns to protect health workers from coronavirus in the UK are “drawn down,” Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr, but he defended the government’s response.
“We had stocks, we built them up for a flu pandemic, they were augmented by the stocks we had for a No Deal Brexit. But it is the case (…) that those stocks are drawn down,” he said.
Gove added that “new PPE [personal protective equipment] is coming in this weekend from Turkey” on top of 25 million gowns from China “secured” by the British Ambassador in Beijing.
On Saturday, Secretary of State Robert Jenrick said “a very large consignment of PPE is due to arrive” on Sunday from Turkey, “which amounts to 84 tons of PPE” and includes 400,000 clinical gowns.
However, it is unclear if the shipment from Turkey has taken place as hoped for. Shipments of PPE from Turkey require special export permits from the Health Ministry after the country banned exports of such items.
Speaking to Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Gove said the shipment from Turkey comprised “tens of thousands of gowns.”
On Friday, NHS Providers — an organization that represents NHS hospitals — warned that there was a “critical” shortage of clinical gowns in the UK. According to the organization, some hospitals will “run out of fully fluid repellent gowns this weekend” and will be forced to use the “highest possible level of alternative” protective equipment.
A Downing Street spokesperson said in a statement Sunday that the government had been “working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives,” and guided by medical and scientific expertise.
“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 statement said.
“The Prime Minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation.”