The government missed a series of opportunities to lessen the impact of the coronavirus in February and March, it is being claimed.
According to an investigation by The Sunday Times, dire warnings were ignored from scientists – and the UK lost "a crucial five weeks in the fight to tackle the dangerous threat of coronavirus despite being in a perilously poor state of preparation for a pandemic".
Government whistle-blowers, scientists and emergency planners have alleged there was a complacency at the heart of government in late January and February when it should have been urgently replenishing stockpiles.
The newspaper says Boris Johnson missed five meetings of the government's key COBRA meetings as the COVID-19 crisis gathered pace.
It also claims:
- "Little progress" was made in obtaining emergency supplies of masks and gowns in February, with the UK actually sending 279,000 PPE items to China
- The country's last rehearsal for a pandemic was in 2016, and recommendations from that exercise to address a lack of PPE and intensive care ventilators were never implemented
- Preparations for a no-deal Brexit "sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning"
- The British Healthcare Trades Association was ready to help supply PPE in February, but its offer of help was only accepted on 1 April.
A Downing Street spokesman hit back at The Sunday Times report, saying: "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 report comes as 84 tonnes of desperately needed PPE – including 400,000 surgical gowns – arrives in the UK from Turkey.
On Saturday, it was confirmed that another 888 patients have died in UK hospitals after testing positive for coronavirus.
This takes the total number of fatalities to 15,464, the fifth highest in the world.
As Mr Johnson himself recovers from COVID-19 at Chequers, his government is coming under mounting pressure over the crisis.
Sir Keir Starmer, the new leader of the opposition, has shattered the fragile truce between Labour and the Conservatives.