If you turned off after 5 minutes because it made you angry to watch the government making the same mistakes over and over again expecting different results, here is an honest summary of yesterday’s coronavirus briefing.

First published in May 2021.

Editor’s Note: This is a rough translation of the actual coronavirus briefing that took place on Friday 14 May 2021 at Number 9 Downing Street with Professor Chris Whitty and PM Boris Johnson.

Covid Press Conference. | Flickr/Number 10

Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

“We are dealing with a rapidly spreading variant that is more transmissible, could lead to a surge in hospitalisations, and overwhelm the NHS – so let’s open up and see what happens... cautiously.”

Professor Chris Whitty:

“This variant is more transmissible. No, we don’t yet know if vaccines are effective against this. We also don’t know whether it prevents transmission or infection, so let’s wait and see what happens when we open up everything next week... cautiously.

There are rises of cases in Bolton, but they are all in the younger people and we know it doesn’t matter if they get infected. There aren’t increases in hospitalisations.” (Actually, there are, but I am going to repeatedly say it’s flat – hopefully no one will notice.)

“And yes, we don’t expect to see increases in hospitalisations until a bit later anyway, and of course it may take time for this to get from younger to older people, like with B117, but let’s not let facts get in the way of the optimism, that people desperately need!”

Number 10

Boris Johnson:

“We need to exercise caution. How can we be cautious? Let’s open up and see what happens! Maybe we’ll need to delay step four, which is over a month later, but definitely don’t need to delay the step in three days time – that’s way too soon to act for us! Perhaps June?

“No sign the NHS is being overwhelmed, yet. Let’s wait until we’re having 20,000 hospitalisations a day – that’s when we act! Why squander opportunities to enjoy the summer by acting early? And no sign of increased hospitalisations so far.” (Did they notice that uptick, Chris?)

Professor Chris Whitty. | Flickr/Number 10

Chris Whitty:

“Lots to be concerned about – lots of uncertainty. Let’s deal with uncertainty the best way possible – let’s just go ahead with what we’re doing anyway and hope for the best. If things get really bad, we’ll know in a month or two, and we can act then – what’s the rush?

“Yes, this variant will very likely become dominant in the UK, just like the Kent variant did. We need to learn to live it. Some of you might not be able to live with it – or may suffer disabling chronic illness with it, but we must all make sacrifices. After all it’s a balance.

“We’re collecting data through enhanced surveillance so we’ll be able to watch any third waves, viral adaptation, and deaths in real time. We probably won’t do anything to prevent this, but we definitely will surveil them closely, because our surveillance systems are excellent!

No, we never use the data to inform policy – that could seriously scupper our plans, but it’s always good to know what’s happening, even if we never change what we do. It just means that we can knowingly ignore the risks, rather than unknowingly ignore them. Much better.”

PM Boris Johnson. | Flickr/Number 10

Boris Johnson:

“Sorry, what was the question? Should we have put India on the red list earlier? No, not really. It wasn’t a variant of concern yet. Yes, it was causing concern to people in India, but not for us! We’re exceptional. And nothing can affect us because of our amazing vaccines!

“No, we don’t know how well are vaccines work against this, but I have full faith in them. And if they don’t work completely, or if the NHS gets overwhelmed, we can always act then. So what if waiting lists get longer... and some people die. At least we don’t have to delay stage 3!

“You say the fourth test hasn’t been met? Just because PHE increased the risk assessment to high risk to public health doesn’t mean our test of ‘change in risk assessment from variants of concern’ hasn’t been met. Those two are completely different things even if they sound identical.

We always follow the dates not the data... sorry, I meant data not the dates... And, look at our amazing vaccine roll out! What policy am I announcing? Nothing much really – we’re just reducing vaccine gaps for over 50s. Why did we have this conference? I honestly don’t know.”

A story of smoke and mirrors. 

Dr Deepti Gurdasani, Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology, Statistical Genetics, Machine Learning, Queen Mary University of London.


[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 15 May 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson. | 14 May 2021. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

Creative Commons License