What is a COBRA meeting? What it stands for and who attends them

One has been called to discuss strike action

close up of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaving Downing Street ahead of a COBRA meeting
(Image credit: Future/Getty)

You may have heard about them in the news, but have you ever wondered what is a COBRA meeting and why the government attends them?

The word COBRA often rears it's head during times of national emergency and it seems the phrase is making headlines for a second time this year. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called his ministers together for a prompt COBRA meeting to discuss drastic action needed in the wake of Nurse strikes, ambulance strikes and Border Force strikes across December. It's not the only industrial action taking place this month either with train strikes and Royal Mail postal strikes also hitting the country hard.

Many of us might remember COBRA meetings having been chaired during the start of the coronavirus pandemic. This was as the UK came to terms with the virus and it's spread across the country. We explain the purpose of COBRA meetings and what the catchy acronym really stands for.

What is a COBRA meeting?

A COBRA meeting is called by the UK's Prime Minister to discuss and coordinate a response to a national, international or regional crisis. An emergency committee is formed who attend the meeting, with past examples dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, terrorist attacks and severe flooding.

According to the Institute for Government, COBRA meetings can be "ad hoc and the timing of meetings may be dependent on ministerial availability."

"Convening it can sometimes be a way for prime ministers to indicate that they are taking action and have a grip of the situation," they add.

Boris Johnson leaving Downing Street after an emergency COBRA meeting in February 2022

Boris Johnson leaving Downing Street after an emergency COBRA meeting in February 2022 to discuss the Russia and Ukraine war.

(Image credit: Getty)

The aim of a COBRA meeting is to:

  • Ensure a coordinated government response
  • Make key decisions in the wake of a crisis
  • Update key ministers and the Prime Minister with information on developing crises
  • To assist the emergency, security or military services in their response (depending on what the crisis is)

Immediate action can often occur following a COBRA meeting. For example, in March 2020 after a COBRA meeting on coronavirus Boris Johnson announced the UK was to go into lockdown with pubs, restaurants and schools closed due to covid. Plus adults being asked to work from home.

As for international matters, a COBRA meeting was called in February 2022 by then-PM Boris Johnson in wake of Russia invading Ukraine. A similar one was held after the 9/11 attacks took place in 2001. The government of the time decided to immediately close the UK's airspace to prevent a terror threat.

What does COBRA stand for?

COBRA is an acronym that translates to Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms - where the emergency meetings take place. Meetings are commonly held in Briefing Room A, which is why the A was added. COBRA is also more memorable and easier to pronounce than COBR.

The briefing rooms are found in the Cabinet Office's main building of 70 Whitehall. This is located just behind Number 10, where the Prime Minister lives.

Who attends a COBRA meeting?

  • Prime Minister (who chairs the meetings)
  • Senior ministers
  • Security officials
  • Civil servants
  • Relevant experts
  • Representatives from the military
  • Representatives from the emergency services

Who attends a COBRA meeting is largely dependent on what the emergency meeting has been called for. For example, during the pandemic chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance both sat in on meetings.

Generally Britain's Prime Minister is in attendance, supported by key cabinet officials. However, in January and Feburary 2020, Boris Johnson did not attend five COBRA meetings on coronavirus.

Michael Gove told BBC's Andrew Marr, that during this occasion the meetings were "led by the relevant secretary of state in the relevant area." For example, when Boris Johnson tested positive with Covid in April 2020, Dominic Raab chaired the COBRA meeting.

"Whoever is chairing those meetings reports to the prime minister. The prime minister is aware of all of these decisions and takes some of those decisions," he added.

The public previously had limited knowledge of what a COBRA meeting room looks like. This was on the grounds of 'national security'. But in 2010, a Freedom of Information Act led to an image of one being shared.

inside a COBRA meeting room in Whitehall

Credit: Freedom of Information

Previous COBRA meetings:

The first ever COBRA meeting was held in 1972 in response to the miners' strike. It was chaired by Prime Minister of the time, Edward Heath and it assessed the government's action to the industrial crisis.

More recent COBRA meetings include the Russia Ukraine War (February 2022), Manchester Arena bombing (May 2017), London Bridge knife attack (June 2017) and the Salisbury Novichok poisonings (March 2018).

The pandemic also resulted in a number of regular COBRA meetings as the government coordinated the UK response to the spread of the virus. Several imposed lockdowns, an increase in booster jabs and travel restrictions like the travel green list were all factors that came about after government consultation.

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Emily Stedman
Features Editor

Emily Stedman is the former Features Editor for GoodTo covering all things TV, entertainment, royal, lifestyle, health and wellbeing. Boasting an encyclopaedic knowledge on all things TV, celebrity and royals, career highlights include working at HELLO! Magazine and as a royal researcher to Diana biographer Andrew Morton on his book Meghan: A Hollywood Princess. In her spare time, Emily can be found eating her way around London, swimming at her local Lido or curled up on the sofa binging the next best Netflix show.