Boris Johnson has insisted that tackling the spread of coronavirus is a “top priority” after critics accused him of failing to take a lead on the UK response.
The Prime Minister took to the airwaves after coming under fire for waiting until next week to chair his first emergency Government meeting into the deadly global virus.
Labour had labelled him a “part-time” PM for failing to lead a Cobra contingencies committee on the outbreak until Monday.
But Mr 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.”
His comments come after it was confirmed the first British national had died as a result of the disease.
Wales and Northern Ireland also announced their first cases of coronavirus on Friday.
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.
Mr 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.”
Downing Street confirmed a Cobra meeting would be convened following a sharp increase in the number of cases of Covid-19 in mainland Europe – prompting fears it is only a matter of time before they start rising in the UK.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth was heavily critical of the decision to delay the meeting until Monday.
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.”
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. The public is fearful, wants information and needs to know their leaders have got a grip.
— George Osborne (@George_Osborne) February 28, 2020
Former chancellor George Osborne said Mr 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,” Mr Osborne, who now edits the London Evening Standard, tweeted.
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.”
Number 10 said officials from the Department of Health, Public Health England and other relevant departments were meeting on a daily basis to discuss the crisis, while Health Secretary Matt Hancock had been chairing a weekly Cobra meeting.
Those will now be stepped up to take place twice weekly.
“The Prime Minister is keen to chair Cobra on Monday to ensure that everything that can be done is being done,” the spokesman said.
The spokesman also disclosed that Mr Johnson had spent half of the night shift on Thursday visiting Kettering Hospital, where senior clinicians had talked him through their preparations.