Paramilitary police officers wear masks as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus – AFP

Ministers were made “fully aware” by intelligence agencies that China had covered up the true scale of the Covid-19 outbreak, it was claimed on Sunday night, raising questions over Britain’s decision to delay the lockdown.

The Government in Westminster was told “not to believe Beijing’s claims” from the outset and to treat the information coming out of China with scepticism, The Telegraph understands. A senior, former MI6 official said the intelligence agencies knew what was “really happening” in China and passed that information to ministers.

Doubts are also being expressed over China’s insistence that the outbreak began in a so-called wet market in Wuhan, where live animals were being sold. The spotlight is being turned on the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology amid claims that lax biosecurity may have allowed the disease, being examined in the lab, to somehow escape. A Chinese television news report dating from two years ago shows scientists inside the institute’s ‘emerging viruses group’’ wearing only lab coats and latex gloves but no other form of protective personal equipment.

Latest studies suggest the true number of people infected in China in the first wave dating back to mid February was close to a quarter of a million, four times higher than the official figure. China has also since revised its death toll up by 50 per cent. Downing Street continued to use China’s official figures in comparative graphs on the scale of the outbreak until just over a week ago but then dropped the country from the charts over concerns over the accuracy of the data.

Boris Johnson has been accused of failing to act decisively in tackling coronavirus, missing five Cobra emergency meetings at the start of the outbreak and dragging his feet on introducing the lockdown.

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..”

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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. 

Addressing the possibility that the virus had leaked from the Wuhan Institute, the report cites several studies led by scientist Dr Shi Zhengli as concerns. It highlights the fact that Dr Zhengli and her team conducted research in the lab into bat-derived coronaviruses, including ones with a close match to Covid-19 – with at least one of the virus samples being a 96 per cent genetic match for Covid-19.

The Chinese news report showing scientists working in the lab without full protective equipment will add to concerns over biosecurity although it is not clear what the scientists were working on and whether therefore there was a need for full protective kit.

Matthew Henderson, director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, the think tank which uncovered the video from inside the Wuhan laboratory, said: “This video adds all the more evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology — which was handling lethal new Coronavirus strains — was not observing basic biosecurity. Given what we now know about lax biosecurity standards, it is at the very least plausible that human error at a virology lab contributed to the spread of the pandemic.”

He added: “Since Beijing refuses independent access to these sites, their records and their research, why should we think otherwise?”

In a statement the Chinese Embassy in London,said: “The head of the Wuhan Institute of Virology stressed in an interview that the institute is run on a set of strict management rules. High-level bioresearch safety labs have sophisticated protective facilities and strict measures to ensure the safety of laboratory staff and protect the environment from contamination.”

The embassy said there was “zero infection” within the institute, adding: “There is no evidence showing the virus came from a lab… Rumour-mongering as well as slander and smear will only damage international solidarity.” 

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