Five questions UK media should have asked of its government during Covid-19 – but didn’t

Damian Wilson is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.

10 Apr, 2020 16:20

The unusually supine, bovine and herd-like behaviour of the British media at the government’s nightly Covid-19 press conferences has become one of the most depressing spectacles of the whole affair.

This daily ritual should be an opportunity for the nation’s finest journalistic minds to hold the government to account for its actions over the disease and to quiz ministers about the catastrophic consequences of their lockdown, so as to be able to present to their viewers and readers a critical, authoritative appraisal of what it all means.

Yet what do we get? The same litany of tireless, pointless and lame questions, set by journalists seemingly more concerned with grandstanding and impressing their colleagues and editors (and sometimes the politicians, themselves). Rather than, at this time of intense national crisis, doing their job. Holding truth to power, as they portentously like to remind us. Pass the sick bucket.

So in the spirit of trying to give these poor saps a hand, here are five key questions they should have asked the government. Feel free to use them, ladies or gentlemen of the media; no need to pay me. 

Why did it choose to follow advice from one group of scientists over another? 

In a nutshell, when selecting its initial approach to tackling the spread of the coronavirus, the UK opted for advice from its own scientific expert panel, and they were not in favour of the model suggested by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

When the government later published the advice it had received the documents mentioned social distancing several times but had little regard for testing, despite WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus pleading with all countries to “test, test, test.”

In accepting the domestic suggestion of  “herd immunity,” the government was expecting most people to catch the virus anyway, so testing became less of an issue and the preparation of laboratories across the country came to a standstill.

Then, when those on the Imperial College team in London dropped their bombshell figure of 250,000 deaths if herd immunity was allowed to take its course, the U-turn was as sudden as it was dramatic.

But now the UK was in the queue for testing equipment, while Germany was doing 500,000 people a day.

At the outset, if the UK had listened to WHO, rather than rely solely on its home-grown boffins, the outcome and prospects could have been far different and maybe saved many lives.

Did it change strategies halfway through due to good scientific advice or simply public pressure?

It was the horrifying figure from Imperial College of 250,000 potential deaths that saw the UK government change course… and, of course, the mounting evidence that a comprehensive testing regime in Germany was keeping its death toll way below that of other nations.

The Germans began testing its people on day one of the first positive test for coronavirus and that move has no doubt saved thousands of lives.

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No British prime minister, in fact no-one, wants to admit that a tally of 250,000 deaths was actually avoidable once the pandemic has passed.

How ill has Boris Johnson been really and why does the foreign media seem to know more about it than the UK press?

With Boris Johnson now out of intensive care, though likely to face several weeks of recuperation in his ongoing battle with the coronavirus, something just seemed a bit out of kilter with what the British people were told.

It wasn’t revealed that the PM had been taken to intensive care until after the Queen’s feelgood message had made us feel all warm and fuzzy on Sunday evening. This followed days of reports that Boris was in “good spirits” (even though suffering from the virus) by stand-in Dominic Raab, who admitted on Monday that he hadn’t even spoken to his boss since Saturday.

Bearing in mind that the foreign secretary was now expected to carry out the PM’s wishes, who we were assured was still in control, that was slightly odd.

And it wasn’t just me who felt we were being sold a pup on this one. Inquisitor General Andrew Neil tweeted his unease saying: “If Dominic Raab is PM’s stand in while PM in hospital but PM still running things, why has Mr Raab not spoken to PM since Saturday? Something not right here.”

Now, with Boris apparently on the mend, we will probably never know the full severity of his brush with Covid-19… until his no doubt much-anticipated memoirs come out, of course.

Why did Matt Hancock choose to scapegoat footballers rather than his own health department, or at least billionaire football club owners?

In choosing to declare that professional footballers should take a wage cut of 30 percent, Health Secretary Matt Hancock picked a fight with what he probably saw as a group of easy targets.

But the suggestion blew up in his face with newly-appointed Times newspaper columnist, the former England footballer Wayne Rooney noting: “He was supposed to be giving the nation the latest on the biggest crisis we've faced in our lifetimes. Why was the pay of footballers even in his head? Was he desperate to divert attention from his government's handling of this pandemic?”

The ex-Man United player had a point with NHS staff struggling to find the urgently needed protective equipment and a virus testing strategy that seemed woefully undercooked.

Meanwhile, some Premier League clubs, Liverpool for example, had chosen to take up the government’s generous offer of paying 80 percent of each employee’s salary, the foreign billionaires such as John Henry, who own the top tier British clubs must have thought they’d struck gold.

Why did Hancock not turn on these people first before setting his sights on footballers? These billionaire owners milk the British football cash cow year in, year out, so surely this crisis is the perfect time for some payback.

We’d all love to see some of those Middle East, Thai, Chinese and American millions make their way back into our virus-hit economy.

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When Liverpool footballer Jordan Henderson took it upon himself to pass the hat around his fellow Premier League players in order to help those on the NHS frontline, Hancock’s suggestion seemed a bit mealy-mouthed against this generosity.

Of course, the highly-paid players are also high tax payers, so any reduction in their salaries would have the knock-on effect of reducing tax revenue and the pot of money available to spend on the NHS.

Next time, Hancock needs a bit more care in choosing his target.

Is the government’s strategy for dealing with the media now the future?

The nightly press conferences have so far made for some gripping television viewing and with the appearance of one of our key political leaders flanked by scientific experts, the public is under the impression that it is being kept in the loop as the pandemic story evolves.

But is this true? Because from here, it looks like a wonderfully successful exercise in central control of the message coming out from Downing Street.

The format is simple, the deference to the scientific experts is believably authentic and the questions from the reporters orchestrated carefully, with follow-up questions even elicited, something that would never happen at a regular press conference.

Then, when it’s felt that enough has been said, the PM or his stand-in simply turns tail and leaves, joined by the experts in double quick time to exit through the double doors.

It’s a masterful exercise and we all swallow it because that is all that is available. Like it or lump it.

There must be many politicians and advisers in government who would love to make this means of disseminating information to a receptive audience a permanent fixture once Covid-19 has passed.

So our media’s finest need to wake up and get their act together fast – and stop what increasingly seems to be capitulation to a government taking control of a message that may not necessarily deliver the full story.

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