The British public will have to wait until Sunday for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy to gradually lift the lockdown, after hopes that clarity would be provided at Thursday’s daily press briefing were dashed.
Many of Thursday morning’s UK tabloid newspapers all ran with a similar theme, with front-page headlines inferring that a total relaxation of the lockdown restrictions – in place to slow to spread of coronavirus – was imminent.
Johnson’s administration has been reviewing lockdown procedures every three weeks in conjunction with a briefing from its scientific advisory group – and the latest update for the public was expected on Thursday.
BREAKING: British media reacts as death toll passes 30,000. pic.twitter.com/FS2M1y89DD
— Have I Got News For You (@haveigotnews) May 7, 2020
But when Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab took to the podium at the day’s press briefing, he announced there would be no change to the existing rules – but did confirm that the prime minister would be outlining his strategy on Sunday in a televised statement.
A further 539 people died after contracting the coronavirus in the 24 hours to 5pm (16:00 GMT) on Wednesday, Raab announced, bringing the country’s official death toll to 30,615. Only in the United States have more people died from the disease.
“The headlines were clearly the result of some press briefing designed to present a more positive narrative ahead of the bank holiday weekend – but it has backfired,” media and politics expert Ros Taylor, presenter of The Bunker podcast, told Al Jazeera.
“The government is desperate for good news, with other nations lifting lockdown, and to avoid the headlines of having the highest number of deaths in Europe. Newspapers are also desperate for good news – circulations are way down, and if you’re presented with two papers, one saying ‘Highest death toll in Europe’ and another saying ‘Liberated from lockdown’, which are you more likely to buy? All round, the desire for good news is extremely high.
“It was badly timed, however, and risked playing back into this narrative that was starting to develop before Boris Johnson was taken into hospital, that he was trigger-happy and putting business ahead of people’s lives.”
24 hours between these front pages. pic.twitter.com/nP6oqRFHf0
— Lewis Goodall (@lewis_goodall) May 7, 2020
“People are very reluctant to see lockdown lifted, according to polls,” added Taylor.
“The appeal to obey lockdown here has been rooted in guilt, emotion and solidarity with the NHS [National Health Service]- whereas in France, it was a case of a government-mandated order – ‘you will do this because we know what is best’. In the UK, there was more leeway to bend lockdown rules, though I think it is remarkable how much people have obeyed them. But when it comes to lifting those rules, there is now a risk that some people are going to be just too afraid to go out – while others think the lockdown is over – because of the confused media messaging, which the government has somewhat screwed up.”
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment for this report on the discrepancy between its message and Thursday’s tabloid front pages, saying they had nothing further to add to the foreign secretary’s statement.
Johnson has come in for criticism for seeming to avoid questions from the press, with the hashtag #WheresBoris trending on Twitter earlier this week, while others noted that the statement now expected on Sunday could have been made in front of Parliament.
“Our country is facing the biggest crisis since WW2,” tweeted Labour MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, who is also an accident and emergencies NHS medic. “A statement of this significance should be given in Parliament where it can be scrutinised and questioned by MPs.”
But Raab told reporters on Thursday that the situation could have been worse.
“In this first stage of the fight against COVID-19, through this national team effort, we’ve prevented the number of deaths rising to even higher levels, and we’ve ensured critically that the NHS had the capacity to cope,” he said.
He also cited the “R level”, which indicates infection rates – an R of one means each person with the virus is infecting one other person, while an R of three means each infected person is infecting three others. If the number is below one, it indicates the spread of the virus is slowing.
“As a result of the social-distancing measures that we’ve put in place, the R level – which signifies the rate of infection – is now between 0.5 and 0.9,” Raab said. “The overall number of new cases has been steadily falling and the rate of deaths is also steadily falling.”
Government scientific advisers clarified that the R rate was currently between 0.75 and one.
Raab also paid tribute to those volunteering to help the elderly and vulnerable in their communities.
“And each Thursday, of course, we now come together to applaud the NHS staff, and the carers, the people who just kept going to keep our country going,” he added.
Social media reports appear to indicate more people are breaking the nation’s lockdown rules as a sunny three-day weekend beckons, alongside media speculation over Sunday’s announcement and Johnson is under pressure to make any new rules as clear as possible after being criticised for mixed messaging.
At a cabinet meeting of his top ministers, Johnson stressed that Britain would advance “with maximum caution” and be guided by the science and data.
“The point at which we make even the smallest of changes to the current guidance will be a point of maximum risk,” Raab said. “If people abandon social distancing … the virus will grow again, at an exponential rate.”
“The virus is not beaten yet,” said Raab.
“It remains deadly and infectious and we are working very hard right across government and with local government to bring it down in areas of concern, like in care homes, and I’m confident we can do it and we will do it.”
Johnson wants to pursue a strategy that unites the four countries of the United Kingdom: Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
But Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the only change to the lockdown which had been floated in the media that she might agree to in the immediate future was lifting the limit on people only exercising once a day.
“I must make judgments informed by the evidence that are right and safe for Scotland,” she told reporters.
And officials in the government of the devolved Welsh Parliament, or Senedd, took to posting replies to media reports on Twitter suggesting that Johnson’s administration would reopen schools, saying the Welsh education minister would decide when Welsh schools would reopen, not politicians in Westminster.