Boris Johnson did not take Covid-19 ‘seriously’ early in pandemic, inquiry told

Boris Johnson was like the “absent manager” of a football team during the pandemic, a public inquiry has heard.

Mark Drakeford, the outgoing Labour First Minister for Wales, heavily criticised the former prime minister, during his appearance at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday.

Mr Drakeford – who is due to leave his post next week – said the PM was “not taking it seriously” during the early pandemic and accused him of being deliberately unclear when new rules only applied to England.

In a written statement to the inquiry, Mr Drakeford described Michael Gove – the minister for the Cabinet Office during the early part of the pandemic and point of contact between the two governments – as “a centre forward without a team lined up behind him, and where the manager was largely absent”.

Addressing the inquiry, Mr Drakeford (pictured) clarified he was talking about Mr Johnson.

He said: “The absent manager was the prime minister because he was never in these meetings or at the table.”

While he praised Mr Gove, he described him as having “influence rather than the determinative impact” that Mr Johnson would have had in the meetings.

Earlier hearings heard Mr Johnson had decided not to meet heads of the devolved nations to avoid giving the impression that the UK was federalised or like a “mini-EU”.

Mr Drakeford said he had written to Mr Johnson “regularly” asking for a “predictable series of meetings between the heads of the four nations” and called the decision not to meet with the devolved nations an “extraordinary decision”.

The First Minister claimed that mass gatherings, like the Cheltenham Festival, had only been kept open during the early stages of the pandemic because Dominic Cummings, the former PM’s adviser, had refused to stop them.

He said he had made the argument in Cobra meetings – major briefings between the UK government and devolved nations – on March 12, weeks before the first lockdown.

He said: “In this discussion, the Prime Minister did go round the room, he took views from anybody who wanted to contribute, and in that discussion, I was arguing for a four-nation agreement that mass gatherings would not go ahead.”

He added: “The reason I have such a vivid memory of it is that having gone round the table the prime minister summed up against that course of action by saying ‘Dom says no,’ that was his final contribution.

“I did not know who Dom was at this point.”

The Welsh government was criticised for initially allowing a Six Nations rugby union match to go ahead on March 13.

The game was ultimately cancelled the day before kick-off.

He also claimed that Mr Johnson had been “deliberate” in making it unclear that new Covid rules only applied to England, despite pleas from the heads of the devolved governments.

Mr Drakeford said: “(We said) he must make it clear that what he is about to say does not apply to Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland and he gives assurance in the COBRA meeting that he will do his very best to make sure that he does that.

“He then heads to the cameras, and he provides a script in which the only time he refers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is when he says early in the press conference ‘as the Prime Minister of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’.

“It is a very clear indication to people that what he’s about to say applied to the whole of the United Kingdom, and he never once says that is not the case.”

Mr Drakeford described this as a “bleak moment” and “deliberate”.

The inquiry also heard that Matt Hancock, the then-UK health secretary, incorrectly stated that public health was not devolved in an “extraordinary exchange of messages” with Mr Gove.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Mr Drakeford said there was a “lack of clarity” over the legislative basis for powers that would be needed to deal with the pandemic, which continued through March 2020.

“My belief right up until March 20 is that the essential decisions would remain in the hands of the UK Government and that devolved governments would be implementers of those decisions,” he told the hearing.

“Even on March 20 there is further confusion over the next couple of days as to where the ability to exercise public health powers lie.

“And there is an extraordinary exchange of messages between Mr Gove and Mr Hancock on May 30, in which Mr Hancock says ‘I’ve seen the submission, it’s disgraceful that lawyers don’t understand where these powers lie because public health is not devolved’.”

Mr Drakeford continued: “So here is the secretary of state for health in England getting the most basic thing entirely wrong.”

He told the hearing it was “pretty alarming” that the legal basis for which “profoundly consequential decisions were being made” was still being resolved on March 20.

The inquiry continues.

UK ministers were afraid of Nicola Sturgeon during pandemic, inquiry told

UK Government ministers were “afraid of Nicola Sturgeon” during the pandemic, the First Minister of Wales has said.

Addressing the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, Mark Drakeford said: “I have the highest regard for the first minister of Scotland and first minister and deputy first minister in Northern Ireland, they were never anything but collegiate people, they took phone calls, they were involved in discussions.

“The UK Government was always anxious about their interactions with the FM of Scotland because she had a different underlying ambition for the future of Scotland and that coloured their attitude towards her.

“She’s also a formidable politician.

“Many UK ministers were afraid of her and would not like to be involved in a confrontational dialogue with her.”

He added this was not true of then prime minister Boris Johnson, who he said did not want to give the impression that he was “on par” with first ministers of other nations.

Responding to the comments, a senior SNP source said: “People often fear the unfamiliar – it’s understandable that Nicola’s competence, compassion and integrity unsettled some of the Westminster Government.”

Giving evidence at the inquiry when it held hearings in Edinburgh in January, Ms Sturgeon denied making pandemic decisions for political reasons, adding she had not “thought less” about politics and Scottish independence in her life than she did during the Covid crisis.

She repeatedly fought back tears during her evidence session, and said: “People will make their own judgments about me, about my government, about my decisions, but for as long as I live, I will carry the impact of these decisions, I will carry regret at the decisions and judgments I got wrong, but I will always know in my heart, and in my soul, that my instincts and my motivation was nothing other than trying to do the best in the face of this pandemic.”

She faced criticism after confirming to the inquiry she had deleted her pandemic-era WhatsApp messages, though she stressed this was in line with official advice, and she said all “salient” points were placed on the corporate record.

The inquiry also heard in January that Ms Sturgeon branded Mr Johnson a “f****** clown” in a series of messages during what she said was his “f****** excruciating” announcement of a second national lockdown for England.

She made the comments in a series of messages with her then chief of staff.

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