Government shifts to daily press conferences amid criticism over selective briefings

The government has overhauled its communications strategy for coronavirus and moved to daily press conferences amid criticism that it was briefing only selected outlets.

The government has shifted to daily press conferences with the Prime Minister and (left) Professor Chris Whitty and (right) Professor Patrick Vallance (pic: GettyImages)
The government has shifted to daily press conferences with the Prime Minister and (left) Professor Chris Whitty and (right) Professor Patrick Vallance (pic: GettyImages)

The backlash against the Government’s coronavirus comms strategy began last Thursday when Professor John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for north-west England, launched a scathing attack on the Government and Public Health England’s response to the pandemic, saying that it lacked transparency and had failed to mobilise the public.

Selective briefing

But criticism mounted at the weekend after ITV political editor Robert Peston revealed on Twitter that he had been briefed about the government’s plans to quarantine elderly people in their homes for up to four months.

BBC Politics presenter Andrew Neil responded on Twitter that, if Peston’s story were true, it should have been revealed by the Prime Minister, “not spun out in an off-the-record briefing by an anonymous source” – an opinion shared by many other journalists of different political leanings, including Carol Cadwalladr.

Later on Saturday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted that he had written an article for the Telegraph revealing the next stage of the government’s coronavirus plan. The article was initially behind the Telegraph’s paywall.

This, too, received strong criticism from the public and the media, including The Times Red Box editor Matt Chorley, who said that Hancock or the Prime Minister should have written something and then asked every major media outlet to run it in full.

Lord Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s former chief of staff, now strategic adviser at PWC, was damning in his response to the selective briefings over the weekend.

He said: “I cannot say this strongly enough: Ministers need to stop anonymously briefing journalists and start speaking directly to the public.

“Trust in government is going to be vital during the difficult months ahead and it is best fostered by transparency, not off-the-record briefing.”

Political consensus shattered

Scientists have also criticised the Government’s plans not to impose tough new restrictions to limit the spread of the disease.

There were also calls for the Government to be more transparent and to publish the data it is basing its decision-making on so that it can be peer reviewed by more experts.

And opposition politicians weighed in on the Government’s approach, breaking a delicate consensus that had existed between parties up to this point.

Labour leadership contender Sir Keir Starmer called for a "daily press conference" over the virus to be hosted by the Prime Minister or a minister, adding: “I am deeply concerned that over the past 48 hours ministers have been failing in their responsibilities to provide consistent and transparent public health advice.”

Fellow leadership contender Lisa Nandy accused the government of being in a “shambles” over its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, Downing Street faced criticism over a selective briefing of Lobby journalists regarding the government’s approach to Brexit, with many outlets viewed as less supportive asked to leave, prompting a mass walkout.

Government shifts position
Later on Sunday, Downing Street announced that Boris Johnson or one of his senior advisers would hold daily press conferences on the fight against coronavirus.

Number 10 said Johnson, flanked by chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance, would give the first of the daily press conferences today.

This will follow his chairing of a Cobra committee to discuss the next steps, including protecting the elderly and other vulnerable people, household isolation and mass gatherings.

A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister and this Government are committed to keeping the public informed every step of the way about what we're doing to fight the spread of coronavirus, when we're doing it and why we're doing it.

“At all times, we will be led by the science to bring forward the right responses at the right time to this global pandemic.”

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