People are fatigued by the Government’s daily press briefings: it’s right that they come to an end

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced he would hold the COVID-19 press conferences only when there was something significant to say.

Scrutiny will continue even though the daily Government briefings have ended, argues Sonia Khan
Scrutiny will continue even though the daily Government briefings have ended, argues Sonia Khan

With a choice between sunbathing, a socially distanced BBQ and staying in to watch a Government ‘presser’, who could blame him for pressing pause?

In many ways, reducing the conferences is a cohesive part of the overall strategy to repair our economy following the virus.

You cannot ask the public to work, populate retail stores and garden centres, and spend money in pubs and restaurants, and then effectively ‘encourage’ them to stay home to watch a conference where there might be an announcement relevant to them.

There also comes a risk with continuing the conferences without a ‘top line’ or a hard take-away for the public, that they simply become fatigued: fatigued with government, politicians and journalists.

At a time when there are big challenges ahead for the country, politicians need the public to understand that their time on screen is valuable and therefore worth listening to.

Too many conferences without a strong take-away harms that and makes people less likely to listen when there’s a public health statement or a fiscal statement that affects them.

It’s also dangerous territory for the Government and public health authorities.

If they’re unable to communicate to the bulk of the public, how can they encourage changing behaviour if the medical advice and the overall strategy adapt?

This isn’t something that can be outsourced to the private sector.

Had this announcement been made a few weeks ago, there would have been greater howls of outrage at the idea that this was an attempt to duck legitimate questions.

However, as we’ve passed the peak of the virus and most of the Government’s interventions have been made, there’s even a sense of fatigue among journalists, recognising the process has somewhat run into the sand.

Questions will persist over whether the Government likes submitting itself for interrogation as long as the boycott of Good Morning Britain, Newsnight and Channel 4 News continues.

Others will make the case that there are many opportunities for scrutiny of the Government, given that COVID-19 data will still be published and ministers will still be held accountable in public forums.

What will change is the platform on which this occurs – it won’t be as public, to the same number of viewers, and this leaves open the door to whether we should broadcast more Government press conferences with journalists.

It would follow in a line of actions by the Government to increase public access to politicians, firstly through the People’s PMQs and Twitter Q&A sessions with Government departments and numerous visits across the country.

While the answer to this question is unclear, what is clear is that COVID-19 has changed the communications landscape permanently.

It has brought challenges in collecting data in real time, and in how we use experts to communicate and manage multiple global messages.

For the Government, the main question will be whether it will get easier or more difficult to control the message on coronavirus, as much as the virus itself.

Sonia Khan is a director at Cicero/AMO and a former special adviser to two Chancellors

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