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Are you hooked? Daily briefings have become a part of our lives

By Mark Andrews | Coronavirus | Published:

Millions of us are tuning into Downing Street every evening to see ministers and experts quizzed on the latest Covid-19 developments.

Rotating cast of characters for the daily briefings

It has been branded “completely embarrassing”, an “excruciating mess” and a total waste of everyone’s time.

Yet the televised Downing Street coronavirus briefing has got the nation hooked, becoming part of the daily routine for many of us during this time of crisis.

Under normal circumstances it is hard to imagine nine million people glued to their screens shortly before tea time while a politician and a pair of scientists wax lyrical about a disease.

But in times that are anything but normal, the 5pm dose of information, questions and analysis at the very least helps us while away an hour during the lockdown.

The briefings started two months ago, launched ostensibly as a means for the Government to keep the nation informed of its efforts to combat Covid-19.

By now the format will be a familiar one. Every evening a Cabinet minister appears centre stage at a lectern, flanked by a pair of medical experts – socially distanced of course.

Boris Johnson

The minister updates us on the growing death rate and the latest measures the Government is bringing in, before the experts take us through a series of graphs and charts.

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Across one side of the room journalists are beamed in on a large screen from their homes (usually from in front of a bookcase) or a television studio, asking questions about the response to the crisis.

There’s been a slight twist to the plot in recent weeks, with questions now taken from members of the public, while the press corps have been extended to include more regional newspapers and niche titles, such as New Scientist and The Muslim News.

It’s generally all very polite and good natured, and, well, all very British.

But from the Government’s point of view, the briefings are an opportunity to try to shape the narrative, while also – crucially – instil public confidence in the job they are doing.

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It’s ministers’ chance to tell the country that even though this is a thoroughly unpredictable and vicious virus, the Government has got things under control.

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The amount of work behind the scenes that goes into each briefing is startling, with the advance notice of an appearance given to each minister, quickly followed by a barrage of information.

What issues are the journalists likely to focus on? What is the key news item of the day likely to be? What message do we want to push about our response?

Ministers are often given a helping hand in the form of a positive departmental announcement.

The overall aim is for them to at least appear to know what they are talking about, as well as drumming home the slogan du jour.

Results have been mixed to say the least, and it is fair to say that some of the revolving cast of ‘presenters’ have handled it far better than others.

Matt Hancock

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, one of our more regular hosts, has produced some decidedly suspect performances, such as when he threatened viewers with more draconian measures after a weekend where lockdown breaches had been widely publicised.

His offer to give NHS workers a badge at a time when newspapers were filled with pictures of those who had died came across as crass and out-of-step with the mood of the moment. But in terms of directly answering questions and managing the whole shebang, Mr Hancock has probably been one of the better performers.

Dominic Raab

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also appears to have warmed to the task, despite at times adopting an oratory style that would be better suited to addressing a group of primary school children.

He was undoubtedly put in a tricky position when Boris Johnson was rushed to hospital after his condition deteriorated.

Mr Raab – a Tory leadership contender a few months ago – effectively became the de facto PM, a position that required him to show leadership without giving the impression that he was the boss.

He dealt with the expected questions over who exactly was in charge in the PM’s absence fairly well, particularly considering that at the time he knew something we didn’t – that the PM’s condition was in fact critical.

Rishi Sunak

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who already has a reputation as a smooth operator, has probably had the easiest time of it.

His appearances have mainly coincided with big ticket Treasury announcements such as the furlough scheme or business grants, resulting in him receiving fawning front page coverage in some national newspapers.

At times the performances have been excruciating to watch.

Priti Patel

Home Secretary Priti Patel won the grand prize for stating the bleedin’ obvious when she proudly announced a huge fall in shoplifting – a month after most shops closed their doors for the lockdown.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick fared little better, appearing in front of the cameras after apparently breaching lockdown rules in the days after he had ordered the public to ‘stay at home’.

Robert Jenrick

His response was to promise the next-day delivery of a shipment of PPE – which duly never arrived.

At least their efforts have not been as bad as those of Alok Sharma. Across several appearances the Business Secretary has barely given a straight answer to a question, although his zest for paying tribute to people seemingly knows no bounds.

Alok Sharma

As for Mr Johnson himself, the PM returned like a conquering hero after his dice with death, although his own unique style is not one that lends itself easily to the scientific analysis these briefings sometimes require.

Apart from questions over the ministerial suitability of some of Mr Johnson’s Cabinet, the quality of the information put across in the briefings has prompted a large amount of criticism.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, who sits on the government’s Scientific Advice Group for Emergencies (Sage) board, described one recent event with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps as “completely embarrassing”.

Grant Shapps

“We get told lots of big numbers, precise numbers of tests being done – 96,878. Well, that’s not how many were done yesterday; it includes tests that were posted out,” he said.

“We’re told 31,587 people have died; no, they haven’t, it’s far more than that. I think this is actually not the trustworthy communication of statistics.”

It should be noted that many other countries lead their own daily briefings, with varied degrees of success.

Nicola Sturgeon

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon used a daily session last week to announce that the lockdown would continue unchanged north of the border, making it easier for her to reject the UK Government’s switch to a “stay alert” message a few days later.

In the US, Donald Trump has used his White House coronavirus task force briefings as a campaign rally, mingling his bizarre theories on the virus with attacks on opponent “Sleepy” Joe Biden and assorted members of the press.

His briefings have a floating start time and have lasted up to two hours.

Donald Trump

Occasionally, they have veered away from the virus altogether, such as the time he front-staged a group of military personnel to announce a drug bust.

When the going got tough – after he had speculated that Covid-19 could be treated by injecting disinfectant into the body – he announced the briefings would be wound down.

While the President’s incendiary appearances have made our own Government’s performances look decidedly tame in comparison, the attempted message is broadly the same.

It remains to be seen how the Downing Street briefings are looked back on as we move through the virus and on to the inevitable inquiry into the Government’s handling of it.

Ministers will hope they are seen as a public service and a sign of transparency, rather than a place where their own failings were exposed.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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