LONDON - Boris Johnson has been accused of ‘sleepwalking’ into the coronavirus crisis as it is revealed he missed five emergency Cobra meetings in the run up to the UK’s outbreak. The missed meetings happened in January and February, when parts of country also experienced the worst flooding on record. The national crisis committee was first gathered to discuss coronavirus on January 24, by which time the disease had spread to six countries. That day, the Lancet medical journal warned the novel disease could be more lethal than the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed over 50 million people.  Boris Johnson hosted a Chinese New Year reception at 10 Downing Street on January 24, the same day he skipped an emergency cobra meeting. And, although the PM didn’t have time to discuss the crisis, he did have time to attend a Lunar new year celebration in the afternoon, The Sunday Times reports. The other meetings were skipped so Mr Johnson could prioritise the EU withdrawal agreement and reshuffling his cabinet. As the virus gradually crept towards Europe, he missed further cobra meetings to spend two weeks with his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds, at a country retreat in Chevening. It was not until March 2nd – five weeks after the first Cobra committee was called – that the PM decided to attend. Health Secretary Matt Hancock had admitted a UK endemic was ‘inevitable’ and ministers were scrambling to put together emergency measures – the so-called battle plan- while instructing the public to stay safe by washing their hands. Boris Johnson has been recovering in country residence Chequers after his battle with coronavirus, which saw him briefly admitted to intensive care. But one source said he was an absent leader long before falling sick. The senior adviser told the Times: ‘There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there, ‘And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. ‘It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.’ The government’s slow response to the outbreak has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks, as the UK’s death toll rockets past 15,000. By comparison, Germany, which has a similar number of recorded cases to the UK, has had fewer than 5,000 deaths. Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to act as the coronavirus outbreak first spread across Europe, tightening Germany’s borders and starting to impose lockdown measures on March 15, over a week before Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown in the UK. Her success has also been pinned on the country’s testing strategy. While the UK was only managing to test around 70,000 people a week for coronavirus at the beginning of April, Germany was averaging around 500,000 tests over the same time period. The UK is testing fewer people for coronavirus than most countries. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has blamed the UK’s slow testing strategy on the lack of a major diagnostics industry in the country. But critics have blamed this and a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) on years of austerity. The last rehearsal for a pandemic was a 2016 exercise codenamed Cygnus, which predicted the health service would collapse if hit by a disease outbreak. It highlighted a long list of shortcomings, including a lack of PPE and intensive care ventilators. One government source told The Times that preparations for a no-deal Brexit ‘sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning’ in the following years. They alleged ministers were slow to react even in February, when it was advised the government should warn businesses a lockdown might be on the horizon. Among the scientists who admit there was mounting unease about the virus long before the government took action, is infection disease expert Sir Jeremy Farrar. The UK’s coronavirus response has been blighted by a lack of PPE and slow testing. In a recent BBC interview he said: ‘I think from the early days in February, if not in late January, it was obvious this infection was going to be very serious and it was going to affect more than just the region of Asia. ‘I think it was very clear that this was going to be an unprecedented event.’ The government has now admitted there are shortages of PPE and testing equipment, but ministers have stopped short of apologising. Home Secretary Priti Patel provoked outrage last week when she said she was sorry ‘if people feel there has been failings’. Highlighting the severity of the government’s shortcomings, emergency PPE is expected to run out in the next three days. More than 50 health workers have already died after contracting the virus. But Downing Street has defended its response following the claims in the Sunday Times article. A spokesman said: ‘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.’ (FA)