Coronavirus: Boris Johnson to hold daily press conferences on outbreak after accusations government is ‘complacent and behind’

Weekend of confusion over plan to order over-70s to self-quarantine for their own good

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Sunday 15 March 2020 23:50 GMT
'Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time' says prime minister Boris Johnson in coronavirus update

Boris Johnson has agreed to hold daily televised press conferences to update the public about the fight against coronavirus, following a wave of criticism relating to the government’s approach to the pandemic.

Opposition parties had demanded the daily updates and accused the prime minister of being “complacent and behind” after a weekend of confusion about the government’s plans to order all over-70s to quarantine themselves. Thirty-five people in Britain have died out of 1,372 who have tested positive as of yesterday, according to the Department of Health.

Downing Street caused a furore after it briefed out the life-changing policy affecting more than 6 million people to select journalists, but made no official announcement – sowing confusion.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, further inflamed the situation on Sunday after he went on TV and confirmed the plan was indeed government policy, only to refuse to divulge any details about when it would happen or how it would work.

“I cannot say this strongly enough: Ministers need to stop anonymously briefing journalists and start speaking directly to the public,” Theresa May’s former chief of staff Lord Barwell warned in an intervention on Sunday.

“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.”

Speaking on Sunday afternoon, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “We are suffering a pandemic. It is very, very serious and the government just seems to be complacent and behind on this.” He said the government needed to better communicate why it was “giving advice which is different to that given in almost every other European country”.

All three Labour leadership candidates called for the daily briefings by the prime minister to commence. Lisa Nandy said the updates were necessary to end the “shambles” that was “causing serious concern out in the public”.

Frontrunner Keir Starmer said: “To allow anonymous and speculative briefings to journalists about a significant step-change in the government’s response to the outbreak is irresponsible.”

Acting leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Ed Davey said Mr Johnson had “failed to prepare the country properly or communicate its strategy adequately”, asking why the UK strategy differed so much from other countries’.

Late on Sunday evening Downing Street announced that daily press conferences would commence on Monday, and would feature Mr Johnson, ministers, his chief medical officer and his chief scientific adviser.

Ministers need to stop anonymously briefing journalists and start speaking directly to the public

Lord Barwell, former chief of staff to Theresa May

On Monday the prime minister will participate in a call with G7 leaders including Angela Merkel and Donald Trump to discuss international efforts to find a vaccine for the illness.

One point of contention raised by critics of the government’s strategy is why ministers have held back from implementing sweeping social distancing measures to step the spread of the virus, as virtually all Britain’s neighbours have. Ireland’s government followed France and Belgium in closing all pubs and restaurants on Sunday, ahead of St Patrick’s Day celebration.

The government says it does not want to implement the measures too soon in case people stop following them when the epidemic peaks, but its advisers have also suggested allowing more low-risk people to get infected could help them to develop “herd immunity”. Ministers have distanced themselves from the latter justification in recent days.

MPs will be presented with draft proposals for emergency cross-party legislation on Tuesday that will include powers to detain infected people who do not self-isolate, as well as to force over-70s to stay inside for their own safety. Labour says the powers should also include increases in sick pay and rent and mortgage holidays to cushion the economic impact.

Speaking on Sunday, Mr Hancock announced the government would release its scientific modelling justifying its approach in the coming days. Addressing the news about self-isolation measures for over-70s, he told the BBC: “We do not want formally to say yet that people should do that. The reason for that is simply this length of time that they’d need to stay self-isolated, stay at home to protect themselves – it’s a very big ask, it’s a very long time. We do know that if you ask people to do this sort of thing they can tire of it; we know it has negative impacts.”

But he confirmed that the policy was “in the action plan” and said “we’ll be setting it out with more detail when it’s the right time to do so”.

The prime minister will chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee on Monday afternoon to discuss the government’s response, and meet with leaders from the manufacturing industry in a bid to ramp up production of ventilators.

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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