Covid carelessness: UK government’s PR failures continue

I blogged in March how the UK government’s confused communications about coronavirus were risking lives. (Careless talk costs lives.) Sadly, things have not improved.

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False hopes

These were the headlines in the UK national press on Thursday. A nation straining under lockdown got a clear signal that freedom was beckoning. The hope raised is likely to be cruelly dashed when Boris Johnson announces whether the government is to make significant changes to lockdown rules for England. That seems unlikely with COVID-19 still far from contained.

Those headlines didn’t happen by accident. They would have been based on briefings from the government’s PR teams. This was carelessness – recklessness even – ahead of a warm bank holiday weekend marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Caution was needed. Sure enough, the following day’s headlines marked a gut-wrenching handbrake turn:

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How could Boris Johnson have allowed this to happen? In a health crisis, words matter. The UK government has failed to apply the basic rules of crisis communications. What a contrast to the way the Scottish and Welsh governments have done things. They have been clear and consistent. You can sense the frustration in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay at the failures in London.

Matthew Parris in The Times (paywall) today brilliantly summed up the prime minister’s failure to lead and communicate. In his column, he captured the bumbling prime minister in the Commons as he struggled to string a thought together, never mind a sentence:

“The prime minister: “A-a-as I think is readily apparent, Mr Speaker, to everybody who has studied the, er, the situation, and I think the scientists would, er, confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that, er, the, er, tracing capacity that we had — it had been useful … in the containment phase of the epidemic er, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant, since the, er, transmission from individuals within the UK um meant that it exceeded our capacity. … [A]as we get the new cases down, er, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and, er, trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby to drive down the epidemic. And so, er, I mean, to put it in a nutshell, it is easier, er, to do now — now that we have built up the team on the, on the way out — than it was as er, the epidemic took off …”

Cruel but accurate. Johnson long ago perfected his persona as a bumbling, rather chaotic player. This seemed to provide a front for a man who was actually ruthlessly ambitious. Yet, now, we wonder whether it’s not an act after all – that, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there”. Matthew Parris asks in The Times today whether Johnson is actually up to the job. He says:

“We need to be persuaded that the leader is leading: in charge, across his brief, able to bang heads together and when key decisions loom, equipped and ready to take them.”

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Wales takes the lead

It’s clear that the first ministers of Wales and Scotland have decided they cannot afford to allow London to lead coronavirus communications. True, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon come from rival parties with little time for Old Etonian bluster. And Sturgeon in particular has an agenda to show that Scotland is better going its own way. But they have their own responsibilities in their respective nations. Drakeford announced on Friday only “modest” changes to the coronavirus lockdown in Wales, warning it was “too soon” to go further. That has to be right. Why did London not do the same? Why did Johnson delay his announcement until Sunday? It’s hard to imagine any new trends or data emerging over the weekend to justify a major change.

As Matthew Parris concludes, “This crisis is a flight into the unknown and we need the captain to stop the blustering and talk to us like grown-ups”.

Testing, testing

It’s clear now that the government seriously blundered over its target of providing 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day. At the end of April, it triumphantly trumpeted that it had reached that target on the last day of the month. But suspiciously, it then failed to meet the target on every single day of the following week. It’s hard not to conclude that the government was playing games. That’s the last way to govern and communicate during the greatest health crisis for a century.

The failures to keep promises to provide tests and personal protective equipment for NHS staff and carers recall an episode early in Churchill’s wartime premiership, recounted in Erik Larson’s superb new book The Splendid and the Vile.

Talking to a general recently evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, the prime minister commented, “I assume then that your Corps is now ready to take the field?” The reply: “Very far from it sir. Our re-equipment is not nearly complete…” Churchill, taken aback, checked the reports that claimed that the general’s division had been replenished. The general gave a devastating retort: “That may refer to the weapons that the depots are preparing to issue to my units, but they have not yet reached the troops in anything like those quantities”. At that, according to Larson, Churchill was almost speechless with rage and threw the misleading reports across the table towards the chief of the imperial general staff. Winston wasn’t interested in massaging figures; he was outraged that the troops hadn’t got the equipment that the reports claimed had reached them. If only Churchill was in charge in 2020.

Boris Johnson could learn a lot from his hero, who became prime minister 80 years ago today. As I blogged on the anniversary 10 years ago, our greatest premier reflected:

“As he returned from Buckingham Palace as prime minister, Churchill had tears in his eyes as he told his detective that he was very much afraid it was too late. “We can only do our best.” But as we went to bed at 3am the following day, he reflected a profound sense of relief. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”

Coronavirus: do we have right to know facts about Prime Minister’s health?

 

Britain was shocked last night by the news that Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after the prime minister’s coronavirus symptoms worsened. The news raised the important question: how open should the government be about the prime minister’s health?

The dramatic news followed intense speculation that Number 10 had not been open about Johnson’s true condition. The PM released a video (above) on Friday in which he claimed to be feeling better, yet needed to stay isolated as he still had a high temperature. Johnson’s appearance and voice raised concerns rather than calming them. Speculation grew after Boris was admitted to hospital on Sunday night. Why was he still working? Dominic Raab, the PM’s deputy in all but name, admitted at Monday’s daily Number 10 news conference that he had not spoken to Johnson since Saturday, despite continuous claims the PM was still in charge. Within hours, all that had changed as the PM moved to intensive care. Twitter was flooded with goodwill messages from across the political spectrum.

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John Humphrys: goodbye to Today

John Humphrys. Photo: BBC

Britain’s politicians will sleep more easily after this week. The interviewer they fear most, John Humphrys, is leaving Radio 4’s Today programme after 32 years.

Back in 1987, Margaret Thatcher was about to win her third term. People were starting to get concerned about global warming. And Radio 4’s Today programme had established itself as the show that set the nation’s agenda led by legendary broadcaster Brian Redhead.

I was a fan of Today from my early days. While school friends in the Seventies tuned in to Radio 1’s breakfast show, my bedside radio was set to Radio 4. I timed my morning routine to the schedule. I loved Redhead’s wit and the way he switched between caustic treatment of shifty politicians and kindness towards ordinary people who found themselves in the news.

John Humphrys quickly established himself as Redhead’s successor after Brian’s tragically early death in 1994. I thoroughly enjoyed his encounters with Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke in the 8.10am interview in the run up to the 1997 general election. The Conservatives were clearly going to lose by a landslide to Tony Blair’s New Labour but the two impresarios of the Tory party had a compelling presence that few current politicians of any party can match.

My family shares similar roots to the famous broadcaster. Like me, he was born in Cardiff, not far from my grandmother’s birthplace in Splott, and went to Cardiff High School – in its grammar school days, as did my father. (It had become a comprehensive by the time I started in 1975.) Like Mum and Dad, he started his journalism career on the Penarth Times. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Aberfan disaster in 1966, and later said that nothing in his career compared to the tragic landslide that overwhelmed the Welsh village school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

For me, the most unforgettable Humphrys interview in recent years was the one that cost the job of his ultimate boss, BBC director-general George Entwistle, in 2012. Humphrys interviewed Entwistle at the height of the Jimmy Savile scandal. The BBC boss came across as utterly out of his depth and ill-informed. I described the interview in my blog as the director-general’s exit interview and so it proved: he resigned hours later.

Photo: BBC

John Humphrys is right to go now. He has been criticised as being out of touch with the times. That may be true – the 76 year presenter appeared uncomfortable with the understandable backlash against the fact that he and other male presenters are paid more than their female peers. And Today itself can feel heavy compared with the livelier offering from the BBC’s 5 Live breakfast show. But John Humphrys has been an essential part of the national debate over the past 32 years. I will miss my fellow Cardiffian on my drive to work.

The Independent: goodbye to print

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The Independent’s first edition, 1986

The death of the printed newspaper came a step closer today with the news that The Independent and Independent on Sunday’s print editions are to close next month.

The Independent was Britain’s first new broadsheet paper for a generation in 1986. But it has been struggling for years. Its early success was torpedoed by a hubristic decision to launch a Sunday edition to compete with the highly regarded, but short-lived, Sunday Correspondent. Later, Rupert Murdoch’s price war cut even deeper.

I found the daily paper rather dull, but loved the Saturday edition in the late 1980s. (The Independent was one of the first to recognise that Saturday would become a day for leisurely reading of a multi-section paper, as Sunday had been for years.) An excellent magazine helped. In time, The Guardian, its closest rival, took the hint and created a worthy Saturday rival.

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It’s the Sun wot fudged it

The Sun endorses Tories and SNP

Vote Tory! And SNP!

Newspapers love to think they have influence. Tony Blair grovelled to Rupert Murdoch to win The Sun’s endorsement in the 1997 election, after the paper claimed (wrongly) to have won John Major the 1992 poll. Yet this week’s decision by Murdoch to back two utterly opposing parties north and south of the border reveals the nonsense of such self important, cynical posturing.

I take exception to papers telling me how to vote. Democracy suffers through the massive bias in favour of the Tories. I also objected to the Guardian’s campaign against Boris Johnson in the 2008 London mayoral election. Yet the Sun’s laughable decision to back both the Tories and the SNP surely suggests the days when anyone paid attention to eve-of-election endorsements are coming to an end.

It’s an election, not a war, Polly Toynbee

It's an election, not a war

It’s an election, not a war

I expected better from Polly Toynbee. The Guardian’s columnist is usually a wise commentator on politics, and a passionate voice for the deprived. But today’s column indulged in childish war cliches. I assumed a female commentator to be more sensible.

What on earth has a ground war and an air war got to do with an election? Please grow up.

Don’t get me started on ‘retail offers’. Political reporting gets more ridiculous by the day.

Leaders debate: in praise of the women

Follow my leader: #leadersdebate

Follow my leader: #leadersdebate

The 2010 #leadersdebate series electrified that election campaign. It was a first for a British general election. It made Nick Clegg famous, as Gordon Brown and David Cameron competed to agree with Nick.

Women on top: Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon at #leadersdebate

Women on top: Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon at #leadersdebate

Tonight’s debate was very different. There were seven leaders crowding the stage. Refreshingly, three were women: the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon; Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett. Most of us thought they won the day, with their good manners, willingness to listen and different approach. At one point the men got into a shouting match – showing they care nothing about voter disdain for such hooligan tactics. (Just as they’ve not changed PMQs.) And the three women weren’t English. Diversity in action.

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Cameron’s clanger: the great election debate fiasco

2010 leaders debate: Cameron cannot veto the people's right to 2015 rerun. Photo: BBC website

2010 leaders debate. David Cameron cannot veto the people’s right to a 2015 rerun. Photo: BBC website

There are weeks when I despair of Britain’s politicians. And there are weeks when I really, really despair of them. This was one of these weeks.

David Cameron’s attempt to torpedo the 2015 general election leaders’ television debates is beneath contempt. It shows the Old Etonian at his very worst: arrogant, tactical, self-serving, inconsistent and above all wrong. What was he thinking? Three cheers for Britain’s broadcasters for insisting the debates will go ahead. They must ’empty chair’ the prime minister if he is so foolish to refuse to take part.

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Cadbury’s and the supersonic Seventies

Three years ago, I blogged about Dominic Sandbrook’s BBC series The 70s. I reminisced about Cadbury’s Supersonic Seventies TV advert and lamented that it was sadly missing from YouTube.

Happily, it’s now there. It was pure nostalgia watching this over 40 years later. Curious how I remembered the ending so accurately: ‘One of today’s great tastes, ooh ooh!”

Costa Coffee takes over Captain Mainwaring’s bank branch

Captain Mainwaring at The Crown

The Crown as Martins Bank, Walmington-on-Sea

I don’t imagine that Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring ever tasted a frappucino. (They came long after 1940.) But the Chalfont St Giles, Bucks pub that posed as Mainwaring’s bank in the Dad’s Army film is about to open as Costa’s latest coffee shop.

Costa Coffee Chalfont St Giles

The Crown becomes a Costa

Sadly, the much loved Crown closed last year, as I blogged in May. It was one of our favourite venues for anniversary and birthday dinners. (I took my very first iPhone photo on one such occasion in 2008.) Losing a pub is always a sad event, but if we have to swap dinner for coffee a Costa is a good choice. (Make mine a skinny latte and tiffin…)

The Crown Chalfont St Giles pub sign

Sign of the times

PS: we paid our first visit today, 20 December. They’ve done a very nice job converting the pub. The coffee’s great too!

Costa Coffee opens in Chalfont St Giles

Costa Coffee opens in Chalfont St Giles