by Tom-Henry Jones
In the midst of a national crisis, such as the one the UK finds itself in at present, you will often hear the term ‘COBRA meeting’ used, associated with the Government’s actions. ’COBRA’ is a term which symbolises a Government’s response to a crisis, yet it is simply just an acronym for ‘Cabinet Office Briefing Room A’. You will also likely see the term expressed as ‘COBR’ given that not all briefings will take place in briefing room A.
Situated at the heart of Government in Whitehall, COBRA meetings take place in the Cabinet Office and are used to take emergency decisive action relating to national disasters or crises.
Normally chaired by the Prime Minister or the relevant Secretary of State, there is a wide range of personnel who attend COBRA meetings. These include a range of senior ministers, intelligence personnel, military chiefs and civil servants. There is no fixed list of who can attend these meetings; it varies according to the nature each crisis.
Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, the likes of Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance will be in attendance. It is highly likely also that England’s Health Secretary, Matt Hancock is in regular attendance. It was recently announced that the First Ministers the devolved administrations such as Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon, for Wales and Scotland, respectively, have attended recent COBRA meetings to coordinate a UK-wide coronavirus response.
The origin of COBRA meetings dates back to 1972 at the height of the Miners Strikes. Since then COBRA has grown to become a symbol that the Government is on top of and handling a given crisis in an organised and controlled manner. This means there is often political pressure to convene COBRA as a sign that the Government is considering a crisis with extreme importance.
COBRA meetings are called for a variety of reasons. In the past they have been convened to coordinate a response to emergencies ranging from the flash floods seen earlier this year, to the Foot and Mouth disease outbreaks of 2001 and 2007. More recently, under Theresa May’s premiership from 2016 until 2019, COBRA met in response to terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. The meetings are used to organise a coordinated response to the incidents and reinforce or re-establish the Government’s action on the crisis.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently came under attack after an investigation by the Sunday Times suggested Johnson had missed up to five COBRA meetings related to the coronavirus outbreak in February and March. The report added that “it was unusual for the Prime Minister to be absent from COBRA and [COBRA] is normally chaired by the Prime Minister.” The Government responded by stating “it is entirely normal and proper for COBRA to be chaired by the relevant Secretary of State.” The statement continued by citing instances where this had been the case in the past.
Despite the strong response by the Government regarding the claims made in the report, the image of the prime minister missing COBRA meetings at a time of national crisis is potentially harmful to the Government’s reputation and reliability.
For now, as they have in the past, COBRA meetings will continue to play an integral part in coordinating an effective strategy to tacking any crisis. As the UK wide lockdown continues, COBRA meetings will be the place where important decisions regarding COVID-19, such as when social distancing measures will be eased, will be discussed and decided upon.