NHS CEO, Simon Stevens and Brigadier Phil Prosser flank Boris Johnson (Tolga Akmen - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Once, twice, three times a briefing

Are thrice weekly Downing Street briefings finally about to start giving us reasons to be cheerful?

On early evenings when Downing Street briefings are not being broadcast, BBC One viewers can enjoy a quiz show in which contestants come up with answers that nobody else would think to suggest. It is called Pointless. Between March and June last year, this was the show that had to be moved to a new slot to make way for daily Coronavirus press conferences live from the panelled chamber of Number 10. That innovative daily format ran for 92 performances on the trot before being axed. Pointless duly returned to its previously anointed slot, although the unkind might have been forgiven for thinking that it had never been away, at least in spirit.

Daily press conferences from Downing Street rapidly lost their informative value when there was nothing new to say beyond the relaxing intonations of Alok Sharma reminding us to stay alert. In that sense they were indeed Pointless but with the game show’s rules reversed – making celebrities out of ministers who answered questions with the most platitudinously obvious answers, if, indeed, they could be classified as answers at all.

Yet, these daily Downing Street briefings sustained decent viewing figures throughout, long after the drama of the first weeks when viewers wanted to know not only accurate data on the accelerating death rate and the possible overwhelming of the NHS but whether the plane carrying the PPE from Turkey had landed yet or whether – as was briefly assumed – our people were dying because Britain wasn’t in the EU’s ventilator distribution programme?

The decision to cease daily broadcast came in June when Whitehall realised that holding these pressers every day was merely encouraging people to believe a crisis was continuing when, by then, it was seemingly under control. But – impressed by the viewing figures – the experiment convinced Downing Street’s then director of communications, Lee Cain, of the value of launching a daily afternoon White House-style televised press conference as routine.

Objections as to why this was not a positive development were swept aside. The appointment of Allegra Stratton as the Downing Street press secretary to front the new format was announced and widely welcomed by those who wish the prime minister well. A suitable room in Downing Street was made ready for the show to commence. It was due to do so this coming Monday, 11 January.

But now it will not. The format is being postponed because of the lockdown. It is a decision that has surprised very few among the Whitehall media fraternity, many of whom have clung tenaciously to the belief that the morning – not broadcast – lobby briefings were where the main action should remain.

Thus we will only know that the great Covid crisis is receding into history when the daily Downing Street afternoon press conferences do finally commence. That could be in the Spring, or the Summer, or in a different format sometime not too soon.

Starting after the emergency is over may strike some as the wrong way around, but the White House format would only zing with a live journalist audience, precisely the sort of scrumdown that lockdown prohibits. So instead, whilst we wait, we are promised more regular coronavirus briefings – a minimum of three a week – in the tried and tested old format for the next few months.

A three times-a-week offering may seem like a sensibly more rationed revival of last Spring’s daily briefings: regular enough to be a feature of the week, but not so frequent that there is nothing new to say but the better part of an hour to fill. Alok Sharma can be duly left to get on with his ministerial duties.

Finally the circumstances are propitious for the Downing Street briefing to offer better PR for the government as it ought to provide regular opportunities to share good news (the number of vaccinations made; targets being reached; we’re still vax-injecting more than the French …). Compare this prospect with last year’s quotidian diet of sombre announcements that across all settings there had been, sadly, 456 deaths over the last twenty-four hours, but that the answer was coming in the shape of NHS Test and Trace.

Prosser appeared to understand logistical challenges so completely that none of the journalists bothered to ask him a single question

Those gloom-laden performances never showed the prime minister (or most of his Cabinet colleagues) to best effect. Even his greatest admirers would admit that conveying steely purpose whilst imparting bad news is not one of Boris Johnson’s strengths. When attempting to do so he has rarely reassured the country that, not to worry, he has an eye for detail and his government is on top of things. But when there are genuine grounds for hope, his presentations are stronger.

Today was such a performance. The concrete facts on the ground were incredibly bad – with 1,162 deaths, the UK had recorded its second worst toll since the pandemic began and hospitals face a plausible scenario of being swamped by Covid intensive care cases in a fortnight or so. Yet, the briefing’s theme was resolute and upbeat: the vaccine programme was being rolled out and was covering the British population more rapidly than any other country (save Israel) in the world. The target of reaching the 13 million most elderly and vulnerable as well as frontline health and care workers by mid-February was achievable, we were told. Matt Hancock would be sharing more detail at the next briefing on Monday

That last bit may not have reassured so much, but the plan was taking shape. Added to which, two new drugs that had shown promising results in saving the lives of those in intensive care, tocilizumab and sarilumab  – which the prime minister struggled to pronounce, only for the BBC anchor to later also give-up entirely in her endeavour to do so – had been approved for immediate deployment.

In giving the impression that, after so many false starts, the government was on the verge of getting this – the big one – right, Boris Johnson is staking his remaining Covid capital. If it goes wrong, these thrice weekly press conferences will become a torture for him and for us all.

Nevertheless, today he was backed-up by experts who appeared to share his optimism rather than those, like Professor Chris Whitty, who have developed a habit for dampening it. Today he was flanked – one might almost say supported – by Sir Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England and, in full camo fatigues, Brigadier Phil Prosser. The brigadier is the commander of 101 Logistics Brigade (aka, the Iron Vipers) and has assumed control of the military support to the Vaccine Delivery Programme. He appears to understand logistical challenges so completely that none of the Zoom-linked journalists bothered to ask him a single question.

So there was Boris Johnson, flanked by representatives of the NHS and the Armed Forces. If only the Queen had stood in for her prime minister, it would have been a clean sweep of the three institutions for which the British public retain an unshakable faith even in the darkest of times. If public confidence is the metric, Downing Street will want to feature them throughout the coming, critical, weeks.

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