Sadiq Khan has accused the Government of failing to keep him informed about the severity of Covid-19 in early 2020, saying “lives could have been saved” if he had been invited to emergency Cobra meetings.
Giving evidence at the start of a major week for the Covid inquiry, the Mayor of London confirmed multiple requests to attend the meetings in early 2020 were rejected by Downing Street on the grounds that other mayors would also have to be present.
He also criticised a lack of communication from the Government, saying it was “unusual” that he had not been given more information on the developing pandemic.
Mr Khan told the inquiry: “The Government generally does give us information about a variety of things happening. I’m disappointed the Government weren’t giving us information in February about what they knew then.”
He described requesting a meeting with Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, on March 11 2020, at which he was told the virus would develop into a global pandemic and London could expect “really serious” consequences within two or three weeks.
Mr Khan said: “It was clear from what Chris Whitty was saying that the impact on London was going to be huge.”
On the basis of that meeting, Mr Khan said, he took the decision to cancel London’s St Patrick’s Day parade, but it was not until he was finally invited to a meeting of the Government’s emergency Cobra committee on March 16 that he understood the full extent of the crisis.
In a witness statement submitted to the inquiry, Mr Khan said: “I remember that the PM referred to the need for draconian measures and said the country would not have faced anything like it since the Second World War.
“I simply could not understand why, particularly given the increasing severity of the outbreak in London and my repeated requests to attend previous (Cobra) meetings in order to be kept informed, this information was only being shared with me at this stage.
“I was both deeply worried and furious that London had not been involved in conversations until this point.”
Giving evidence on Monday, he added: “In this particular case, I can see no explanation at all why… the Greater London Authority, the Mayor of London were not around the table. I think lives could have been saved if we were there earlier.”
Asked by inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett what more he could have done if the Government had told him what was happening earlier, he said: “Some of the things that happened subsequently.
“So it was me that lobbied the prime minister to go to lockdown, it was me that lobbied the prime minister in relation to the inability to keep social distance on public transport, so people shouldn’t be using public transport unless they had to.”
A further meeting with Boris Johnson in Downing Street followed on March 19, at which Mr Khan claimed the then-prime minister had shown a lack of awareness about what was happening in other countries.
He said: “The prime minister wasn’t aware that in other parts of the world they had lockdowns in place and fines could be issued if you breached the lockdown.
“I was surprised he wasn’t aware of that in relation to what was happening elsewhere.”
Mr Khan said he felt that the UK’s “advantage” in being able to see what was happening in the rest of the world “wasn’t being used”.
He went on to say that Mr Johnson agreed to stage a press conference with him later that day, announcing the need for restrictions in London, but later cancelled this so it could be discussed at Cobra the next day and because of the impact such an announcement might have on the financial markets.
Mr Khan said: “I couldn’t disagree with him saying the impact on the markets and so forth, my frustration (was) a further 24 hours of this virus spreading. What impact would that have on the financial markets, on our productivity and so forth?”
Later on Monday, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, the mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region, also criticised the lack of communication from central government – both at the start of the pandemic and as restrictions changed throughout 2020.
Mr Burnham said he had not been invited to a single Cobra meeting despite “repeatedly” asking to attend, and had been left with no formal way to raise concerns about policy.
He said a “London-centricity” meant the experience of places such as Manchester did not receive the attention it should have, citing the decision to lift lockdown in May 2020 when cases had fallen in London but were still high in the North.
Mr Rotheram said his team had been left to wait for the evening news bulletin to find out “nearly every major announcement”.
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