Prime minister Boris Johnson has said the coronavirus is now the government’s top priority, despite leaving the convening of the Cobra committee until after the weekend.
Labour had labelled him a “part-time” PM, while former chancellor George Osborne said Johnson should be chairing a daily Cobra meeting, saying the public needed to know that ministers had the situation under control.
“The British government now needs to go onto a ‘war footing’ with the coronavirus: daily NHS press briefings, regular Cobra meetings chaired by the PM, ministers on all major media shows,” said Osborne.
But Johnson told reporters on Friday he had been working behind the scenes, meeting with the health secretary and chief medical officers to discuss the NHS’s preparations.
“On the issue of coronavirus, which obviously is a great concern to people, I just want to reassure everybody and say that the NHS is making every possible preparation,” he said.
“As you can imagine, the issue of coronavirus is something that is now the government’s top priority.
“I have just had a meeting with the chief medical officer and Secretary of State for Health talking about the preparations that we need to make.”
The PM said advice from medical practitioners about regularly washing hands with soap and hot water for about 20 seconds remained the “most valuable” method of stopping the spread of coronavirus.
But he confirmed that “further advice” from ministers would be coming next week, including how the government would deal with a further spread of the virus across the UK.
Johnson said: “I think people are right to be concerned and they are right to want to take every possible precaution, and we will in the course of the next few days be issuing further advice about how to respond and how we will be dealing with any potential outbreak.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth was heavily critical of the decision to delay a Cobra committee meeting until next week.
He said: “Our part-time prime minister needs to get a grip of this escalating situation quickly.
“It shouldn’t take another three days for this meeting to take place.”
Liberal Democrat acting leader Sir Ed Davey said: “With the NHS already so stretched, it’s gobsmacking that the prime minister has delayed chairing Cobra for so long.”
Johnson visited doctors and nurses at Kettering general hospital overnight – but did not allow cameras to show his appearance.
The prime minister is still yet to meet victims of the recent flooding following Storm Ciara and Dennis.
His spokesman added: “There was a visit from the environment minister yesterday. We are continuing to respond to the flooding and there is a significant amount of operational activity across the country.”