Government media operation during Covid-19 pandemic rated as poor or very poor by most Press Gazette readers

Two-thirds of Press Gazette readers rate the UK Government’s Covid-19 media relations operation as either poor or very poor, according to our latest poll.

And the press office of NHS England has come in for particular criticism from some journalists, who say it is tightly controlling communications around the virus.

Some 1,491 readers responded to an online survey which has been live on Press Gazette over the last seven days. Of these, 46% rated the government’s Covid-19 media relations operation as very poor, 20% said it was poor, 12% said OK and 13% said it was very good.

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The poll spanned the period where there was  considerable confusion around the change in the UK about what the Government slogan change from “stay home” to “stay alert” meant.

One national press journalist covering the coronavirus crisis, who asked not to be named, said they agreed with the survey findings. “It has become a daily battle to get information out,” they said.

“They won’t share information even when it is known and the department has committed to making it known. It is often impossible to speak to someone.

“They seem to have brought the shutters down on the ability to have grown-up conversations – everyone is now operating only by email.”

“Membership of SAGE was only published after lots of pressure. Care home deaths were only published after lots of pressure. Everything seems to be have to be pulled out of the system rather than it being proactively released.”

Of the daily Covid-19 briefings, one health journalist said: “They have become number theatre. There is no opportunity to drill down into the facts and understand what this data means.”

On Monday, Press Gazette called the Number Ten press office to confirm reports aides had briefed reporters that the PM would only take questions from members of the public that day, excluding journalists from the daily Covid-19 press briefing for the first time.

Two hours later (and following a considerable backlash prompted by Press Gazette’s initial report) Number Ten told us we had been given incorrect information.

NHS England’s ‘vice-like grip’ on communications

Some journalists covering the crisis who have spoken to Press Gazette have been particularly critical of the way NHS England fields their enquiries.

One experienced journalist said: “NHS England has one of the worst reputations for media management that I’ve come across. Lots of journalists have a terrible relationship with them.

“They have a vice-like grip on communications across the country which means many local hospitals can’t talk about what is going on.”

Press Gazette understands that NHS England has been particularly reluctant to share even basic information about the operation of the Nightingale hospitals.

One national health journalist said it had been “completely controlling” over the field hospital in London’s Excel, which was dedicated to treating Covid-19 patients.

They said: “A month or so ago we had a hunch the Nightingale was all but empty, and NHSE point blank refused to give us any idea how many patients were there. Was the number of patients in single figures, we asked? Double figures? Triple?

“NHS England said they would not go into details on ‘thresholds’. And that was that. There was clear public interest in people having some idea about how this field hospital was being used, and they absolutely would not give an inch.”

The Nightingale’s capacity was only revealed after an internal NHS document was leaked to the Health Service Journal. The hospital is set to be put on standby this week because there are so few patients.

The journalist added: “Public Health England are pretty secret-squirrel at the best of times and these are not the best of times, as they are copping quite a bit of flack.”

Another journalist who did not want to be named said: “Even the simplest of enquiries can take days to be answered in the midst of a rapidly-changing story where speedy replies are of the essence.

“Hospital press offices have been told that all coronavirus calls from journalists, no matter how innocuous, have to go through two layers of the NHS England press machine before anything can be approved.

Press Gazette also understands that some press officers at NHS trusts are concerned about extra involvement from NHS England with some voicing concerns about needing to have their statements approved centrally.

A health journalist who works with national newspapers told Press Gazette that NHS England has taken a “command and control” approach towards hospital trust press relations.

They claim queries to trusts are now routinely being signed off by regional and national NHS England press officers, something that only occasionally happened before the Covid-19 crisis.

Trade title Health Service Journal has been credited with securing many of the key revelations to come out of the pandemic so far.

When asked about the survey findings, HSJ editor Alastair McLellan said: “I can only speak for us on how it has been covering the health aspects of the pandemic, as opposed to the political aspects.

“We have found it to be reasonable and people have tried wherever they can to assist as with our enquiries.

“We have often found that we are talking to people who don’t know as much as us. They  go to  their bosses and say journalists have told us this awkward thing and they are basically shooting the messenger who has gone to tell them that.

“This pandemic is difficult for media offices to manage because you’ve got the entire nation’s journalists working on this story.

“If it has been poor it’s probably a reflection of the sheer scale of what’s been going on.

“That said, the media management around the briefing of the changes to lockdown around the bank holiday period and the PM’s statement on Sunday was a complete disaster and has angered a lot of people in the Health Service because it was unclear.”

He added that HSJ does not tend to rely on press officers for revelation in any case, instead simply going to them for responses when it has the story from its own sources.

Press Gazette has asked the Cabinet Office for a response.

A spokesperson for NHS England said: “One of the many benefits of having a national health service is that the response to an unprecedented challenge like coronavirus can be managed and co-ordinated on a national basis, which includes communication to the public and to our staff.”

 

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