Boris Johnson gave his fourth daily Downing Street press conference of the coronavirus crisis on Thursday. The briefing lacked the seismic shifts revealed on the previous three, where announcements about avoiding pubs and restaurants, a £350bn rescue package and closing schools re-shaped British life as most know it.
However, there were vital updates being communicated to the public that appeared confused and confusing as the prime minister, sometimes in a rambling manner, attempted to strike a more upbeat tone.
Despite the number of deaths in the UK rising to 144 and little sign of the numbers abating, Johnson focussed on the prospect of “turning the tide” on the disease within 12 weeks. But this was just one of a number of mixed messages that emerged from a session that lasted just 20 minutes.
Easier to be a commentator, but the contrast between Gordon Brown’s breadth, ideas and remorseless drive on BBC Radio 4 this morning with Boris Johnson’s inchoate performance this evening was striking.
— Patrick Wintour (@patrickwintour) March 19, 2020
1. What will happen in 12 weeks?
In the live TV news conference, Johnson told the nation he is “absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country” and the tide can be turned within the next 12 weeks.
“I’m conscious as the days have gone by that people will want to know how long we’re expecting them to keep it up,” he told reporters.
“I think, looking at it all, that we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country.
“But only if we all take the steps that we’ve outlined, that is vital, that’s how we’re going to reduce the peak and once we’ve achieved that and I think that we will, if we take the steps I’ve said, then the scientific progress that we’ve been making will really start coming into play.”
But after follow-up questions, it was unclear what “turning the tide” actually meant.
Slightly confusing message from Boris Johnson
At the beginning of his press conference ‘we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks’
He subsequently said: ‘I cannot tell you by the end of June we will be on a downward slope. It’s possible’
— Steven Swinford (@Steven_Swinford) March 19, 2020
He said he could not guarantee that by the end of June the peak would be on a “downward slope”, an admission that the illness could still be spreading.
He said: “Now I cannot stand here and tell you that by the end of June that we will be on the downward slope. It’s possible but I simply can’t say that that’s for certain, of course not, we don’t know where we are, and we don’t know how long this thing will go on for.
“But what I can say is that this is going to be finite, we will turn the tide, and I can see how to do it within the next 12 weeks.”
2. What did 250,000 tests refer to?
Almost as an afterthought, Johnson said the authorities were also “massively increasing” testing on people who may currently have coronavirus, with daily testing going “from 5,000 a day, to 10,000 to 25,000 and then up at 250,000”.
Mass testing appeared to have become official UK policy with little notice. But the PM was corrected by chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty, who pointed to a more modest 25,000 figure.
WOW!@peston: Prime Minister, you came up with this very interesting figure of 250,000 tests. Perhaps you could say more on that.@BorisJohnson: I’ll pass that ball straight to Chris.@CMO_England: PHE are hoping to ramp up the number of tests to 25,000pic.twitter.com/W73ltbcuh3
— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) March 19, 2020
What a shambles?!
The PM just mistook the figure of 25,000 #COVID19 tests Public Health England are “ramping up to” with “250,000 tests.”
— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) March 19, 2020
Johnson also said the government plans to purchase antibody tests to detect if someone has had coronavirus, and said this could be a “gamechanger” in the UK’s response to the illness.
The PM said “hundreds of thousands” of kits could be bought if the tests prove effective, with negotiations currently ongoing. So is that the 250,000 figure he was referring too?
3. Is London going to be under lockdown?
Despite rumours swirling around the capital for the previous 24 hours, Johnson insisted there is “no prospect” of grinding the capital’s public transport to a halt or telling Londoners they cannot go to work amid fears a lockdown is going to be imposed.
By contrast, a day earlier he said nothing had been ruled out when asked if the city was going to be shut down. The PM acknowledged there had been some “misunderstanding” over his plans.
“There is no prospect of us wanting to stop public transport in London or stop the Tube or the buses,” he said on Thursday.
He added that ministers are “not going to be telling people that under no circumstances” can they go to work “if they really need to”.
But, again, there was room for confusion. In some areas, Johnson said there is evidence to suggest people are ignoring social distancing advice, with some still socialising in bars and restaurants – so the government “may need to go further”.
Pubs are open. Don’t visit pubs. That’s the message. Eh?
— Jane Garvey (@janegarvey1) March 19, 2020
He added: “We are going to want people to avoid gatherings where they can transmit the disease. We are absolutely emphatic about that. And if it becomes necessary to do more to ensure that, then we certainly will do so.”
4. When will workers get help?
Johnson urging businesses to “stand by your employees” was another key message, as mass lay-offs are possible following the economic slowdown caused by shutdowns and social distancing.
On Tuesday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s £350bn support package was focused on businesses, with little help for staff facing the prospect of being laid off and unable to pay the bills.
At his press conference, Johnson insisted there would be no repeat of the 2008 crash when the banks were bailed out and those who really suffered were ignored.
Despite European countries and even America effectively saying they will write cheques to hard-hit workers, there was little explicit on what that help might be. Sunak will make further announcements on Friday, the PM said, but businesses appeared to be going ahead and ignoring Johnson’s pleas.
— Robert Peston (@Peston) March 19, 2020
5. Will there be more live press conferences?
The daily press conferences were only introduced on Monday, and followed a torrent of criticism over “confusing” and “dangerous” anonymous briefings to last Sunday’s newspapers.
But has the PM already tired of them? “
“I think there may be a moment where we start to do this remotely,” Johnson said, appearing to refer to journalists being spaced out in the briefing room to observe social distancing guidance. “I don’t know what the plan is.”
.@SamCoatesSky absolutely right to say that it looks like these vital press conferences may at risk. They are the only way to scrutinise the PM. Won’t work if lobby have to email in their questions in advance if they are done remotely.
— Ayesha Hazarika (@ayeshahazarika) March 19, 2020
Johnson picked up the unease among reporters about “some sort of remote press conference”.
“Can you live with that? Ah, I see you are worried you cannot ask questions,” he told them. “I see your anxiety.
“Well, I make a pledge, if we have to move, and I think we probably will … if we have to move to a more remote form of interrogation I will absolutely ensure that everybody gets to ask questions, although not necessarily at the same meeting.”