Ministers ‘fully aware’ China was covering up extent of coronavirus outbreak in early weeks of crisis

A former senior intelligence officer at MI6 said on Sunday: “The intelligence community would have known what was really happening in China. The idea that the UK would have taken Chinese figures at face value is frankly ridiculous. If the Chinese are lying, the role of the intelligence community is to know what the real figures might be if they are being hidden..”

A source said: “We didn’t believe these figures coming from China. The Government would have been fully aware of the true scale of the virus in China at that time.”

Donald Trump twice received intelligence briefings on the coronavirus outbreak in China in January, according to a White House official. In reports being circulated in the US, the president was told at a January 28 briefing that “China was withholding data”. He had been warned five days earlier that the coronavirus had the potential to “spread globally”.

It is expected that Mr Johnson would have received similar briefings.

Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General and chair of the Intelligence Select Committee (ISC), said there was a need for MPs to investigate what intelligence was collected on Covid-19 in China and what was passed back to senior ministers in the weeks before the pandemic gripped the UK. “The ISC is there to ask questions,” said Mr Grieve on Sunday, pointing out the committee had been disbanded at the last election and a new membership had still to be selected. Mr Grieve, who stood as an independent, lost his seat at the election.

The UK ordered its shutdown on March 23, two weeks after Italy and a week after France and Spain. At the time, Italy went into lockdown on March 9, the UK had recorded five deaths from Covid-19.

An Australian newspaper claimed at the weekend to have obtained an intelligence dossier – shared among the ‘Five Eyes’ security alliance of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – accuses China of covering up the seriousness of the outbreak from early December. The dossier states: “Despite evidence of human to human transmission from early December, PRC [Chinese] authorities deny it until January 20.” 

The dossier also questions why China imposed bans on people moving inside the country but continued to tell the rest of the world that international travel bans were unnecessary.

The dossier also suggests China may have lied about the origins of Covid-19. It claims that the virus could have been passed to humans via the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

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