1. Praise the Prime Minister if he has produced another child, wish him a good recovery / vacation if he is inevitably absent. Aware or not, he is in a good mood. Introduce your scientists. Pray that they will include Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Physician from England, whose deviation methods are second to none. Recall, for example, his wish for a “more mature conversation” about personal protective equipment, following evidence that shortages put lives at risk.
2. Make a firm voice, before updating the government’s step-by-step battle plan to defeat the virus. Recite the five tests slowly and clearly. This should take at least five minutes. Let us repeat, as ministers have demanded since March 9, that the government is making the right decisions at the right time, based on the latest scientific advice.
3. Solemn face. Report the latest infection and death figures. Condolences. Reflect, informatively, that these grim numbers are a reminder of how bad the virus is, showing that your five-point plan is correct.
4. A more positive note. Congratulate the heroic front line, ditto for the sacrifice of the British people, by taking up the challenge. You are proud of their determination to turn the tide and win the war. Beating this enemy is a team effort. (The next press attacks therefore amount to siding with the enemy.)
5. But admit there are challenges. Cannot coat with sugar. Unprecedented times. Select all or part of the following: you work day and night, 24 hours a day, you fight tooth and nail, you relentlessly move the sky and the earth and you stretch each tendon while you move mountains in a Herculean effort and gigantic to reach the light at the end of the tunnel.
6. Don’t mention nursing homes.
7. Today, the government can announce that it is accelerating something. On the beat. Budget of millions. On everything, looking badges. A jingoistic comparison is recommended at this stage. Although it may not be the fantasy of Boris Johnson, as of March 16, that the UK “is waging a global response campaign”. Substitute: “Our world renowned scientific experts. “
8. Finally, recite the approved slogan (on the front of the desks, if you forgot it) and it’s up to a scientist for the latest curve flattening data. Given that the UK figures will be among the worst in the world, stress that the comparisons are meaningless.
What follows – press questions – is not always so straightforward, even favored civilians are, in a rare loan from Jeremy Corbyn, invited to use their time and, being warmly congratulated, to introduce the journalists. “Even in our darkest times,” as First Secretary Dominic Raab recently said, “the crisis has also brought to light the best of us. Come on, Lynne to Skipton.
Fortunately, the virtual configuration of the plague offers some defense against hostile interrogation. Observe how the Secretary of Health, Matt Hancock, learned intelligently to introduce the next speaker, closing a boring one. And remember that some journalists will always ask, roughly, “Are we almost there yet?” Take at least three minutes to review the five tests.
Even death-obsessed hacks, repeating Britain’s fatal delays during Johnson’s “singing happy birthday” period, may feel embarrassed to associate a minister with
failures, unforgivable negligence. But deploy accompanying scientists, in the event of such attacks, like your custom-made personal protective equipment. We followed the science and always made the right decisions at the right time.
Try to answer one difficult question with – Raab’s specialty – the answer to another. How many tests completed? Do journalists still talk about Johnson’s commitment of 250,000 a day? Also irrelevant. We are accelerating. Herculean effort. The best military planners in the world.
On PPE, the advice is similar: confuse them with billions of items, deploy the heroic “work night and day” / “every hour that God sends” and agree fervently on the need. So let’s hope that the heroic front line does not spoil it. “We need,” warned Hancock on April 10, “to treat PPE as the precious resource they represent.”
It is not possible to avoid nursing homes. Improvise. Say it was a top priority from the start and hope no one remembers Johnson’s vague advice, as late as March 16, against “unnecessary” visits. Hancock remembers, future investigations will note that in January “one of the first things we knew about this virus was that it had a very high age profile because it was much more dangerous for the elderly.” But he wants to “challenge” the suggestion that the industry was in desperate need of testing, there had been “indexes” “and no doubt many lives have been saved.”
The fact that the government, in an effort to build confidence, was determined to defend obvious failures with extremely tragic consequences was reinstated last week when a returning Johnson described nearly 27,000 deaths as a good result, only to not be 500,000. Obviously, if Dominic Cummings did not calculate that these false statements were, apart from the mischief of the press, politically advantageous, the briefings would not take place.
But despite all the scrambling, they allow glimpses of the truth. It could not have been the intention to reveal the appalling shortcomings of Johnson’s cabinet, chosen, as most of its members were, for their loyalty rather than for information or experience. Cummings could not have intended to point out the guilt of a leader who bequeathed a substitute in a national crisis for a man who would not be trusted with a stepladder.
The lingering memory of these sessions may be the ministers’ collective support for a scenario composed by the authors of Get Brexit Done, which no death toll is enough to revise. No scientist should have to take responsibility for it.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist