What has changed over 100 coronavirus press briefings?

September 30, 2020 9:33:08 PM

What has changed over 100 coronavirus press briefings?

The faces behind the lecterns may be the same, but a lot has changed since the Government’s first coronavirus press conference six months ago and Wednesday’s 100th session.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was once again flanked by chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance for the latest briefing.

But the message – and the warning of future restrictions if the second Covid wave continues to grow – differed somewhat to the one given at the first daily televised conference at Downing Street on March 16.

Here is what has happened since:

– Deaths and lockdowns

A raft of new measures were introduced during the Government’s first daily Covid-19 press briefing, as the UK’s death toll reached 55.

Mr Johnson speaking during the briefing on March 16 (PA Video)

Mr Johnson set out the need for “drastic action” to tackle the “fast growth” of coronavirus, asking people to work from home if possible, and to stop non-essential travel.

Some six months later – and after a national lockdown was imposed – the UK’s death toll now stands at 42,143, with regional lockdowns now the preferred way to control the virus’s spread.

Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies show there have now been nearly 57,900 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

Mr Johnson said on Wednesday that if the evidence required it, “we will not hesitate to take further measures” that would “be more costly than the ones we have put into effect now”.

– Protect the NHS, protect the economy

Back in March and as the national lockdown rolled on, the Government’s message was very much about protecting the NHS and ensuring it was able to cope with an increase in coronavirus cases.

Mr Johnson said at the time he believed the initial measures were “overwhelmingly worth it” to slow the spread of the disease and to “give our NHS the chance to cope”.

But with initiatives such as Eat Out to Help Out for the month of August, the focus has appeared to be more on helping the UK’s economy return to pre-pandemic levels.

Mr Johnson said on Wednesday: “The best way forward, to protect the NHS, save lives, to keep our children in school and the economy moving, is to follow the rules wherever we live.”

– Lectern slogans

At the beginning of the outbreak, the three lecterns used carried signs with an NHS website address for more information on coronavirus.

But since then, they have changed to display various slogans from “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”, to “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives”, and the most recent message of “Hands, face, space”.

Coronavirus – Fri Jul 31, 2020
The slogans emblazoned across the lecterns have changed throughout the pandemic (PA Video/PA)

– Avoid pubs, return to pubs

Mr Johnson urged the public during his speech on March 16 to avoid pubs and clubs as part of measures to reduce “non-essential contact”.

While there was no mention of pubs during Wednesday’s briefing, the message since their reopening in August has been for the public to start using them again, although an England-wide curfew of 10pm was imposed last week alongside some regional restrictions.

Coronavirus – Thu Sep 24, 2020
Customers have returned to pubs, but a curfew on their closing time has been introduced (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

The latest hospitality sector curfew also sparked criticism that the new rules left revellers filling streets en masse at 10pm.

– Daily press conferences to sporadic briefings

The daily briefings came to an end on June 23 with the public told further sessions would only take place to “coincide with significant announcements”.

Since then there have been another eight coronavirus briefings.

Mr Johnson said at Wednesday’s 100th press conference he would be “providing regular updates” through future briefings.

– Questions in person to questions over Zoom

The way in which journalists have been able to ask questions during the briefings has also changed since March.

Coronavirus – Wed Sep 9, 2020
Journalists now ask questions remotely (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Initially, reporters were invited into Downing Street to quiz the speakers in person, but that changed later in March as tighter restrictions were introduced.

As was the case on Wednesday, journalists have been required to use the online video platform Zoom to question Government officials, appearing on a TV screen next to the lecterns when it was their turn to speak.

Some were critical of the method of address because of the ease with which Downing Street could muted their microphones instead of allowing for follow-up questions.

– Face masks

One of the more noticeable changes introduced since the first daily presser has been the use of face masks and face coverings in public places.

They were rarely seen back in March, as experts cast doubt on their effectiveness on protecting the public outside of medical settings.

NHS worker protest
Face coverings are now regularly worn across the UK (Ben Birchall/PA)

But the guidance changed in May, with masks now worn to protect others, rather than the wearer from coronavirus.

Face coverings have since become compulsory for people wanting to use public transport or to visit shops, unless they have a medical exemption.

– Press conference presenters 

On March 16 Mr Johnson tried to show leadership by facing the country with his top advisers.

But just a few weeks later he found himself a coronavirus patient, becoming so ill that he was moved to intensive care after his symptoms worsened on April 6.

He was discharged on April 12 after recovering but spent much of that month on the sidelines resting, with Cabinet colleagues taking turns to deputise.

Although he was back at the lectern for the 100th press conference on Wednesday, his 21st appearance, Mr Johnson is still behind Matt Hancock for total appearances, with the Health Secretary leading 24 briefings.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is in third place having led 12, while Chancellor Rishi Sunak had led less than 10, while Home Secretary Priti Patel has appeared just three times.