PITY the poor Sunday politics shows. The day’s big event, the PM telling the nation when they could rush out and buy three begonias for a fiver, was happening that evening. Hours away. What to do in the meantime?

Andrew Marr had a plan. “This morning we are not going to do any any silly second guessing about what [Boris Johnson] might or might not say. You can turn on and see for yourselves later on. Instead we’re talking to scientists and others about what we know and what we don’t.”

Steady on there, man. If not for silly second guessing many a columnist, and broadcaster, would be out of a job. Moreover, one person’s silly second guessing is another’s informed speculation. He was right about the talking to scientists, though. Increasingly, on both The Andrew Marr Show and Sky News’ Ridge on Sunday, the most compelling interviews are with non-politicians.

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But politicians cannot be ignored entirely. It is they, after all, who take the decisions that affect all our lives. Then again, some politicians are more useful to have around than others. One who struggled to fit into the utilitarian category was Robert Jenrick, England’s Communities Secretary.

Mr Jenrick had the misfortune to be the PM’s warm-up guy when the Government’s change of message – from “stay home” to “stay alert”– was coming under heavy bombardment.

Ridge was the first in a long line of observers who was not sure what “stay alert” meant. “Is there not a danger this is so woolly it could apply to anything?” she asked.

“Well I hope not,” said the Minister. “We need to have a broader message because we want to slowly and cautiously restart the economy and the country.”

On Sunday Politics Scotland, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said the Scottish Government had not been consulted on the change. “If I’m perfectly frank, I have no idea what ‘stay alert’ means,” she added witheringly.

It was not going terribly well for the UK Government’s new slogan. Later, Marr took Mr Jenrick to task over last Thursday’s newspaper front pages, some of which promised that a “Magic Monday” or a “Happy Monday” was on its way. Instead it was looking like just another Miserable Monday in lockdown. Did any government briefing contribute to those headlines, asked Marr.

“I don’t know. It’s certainly not something that I’ve been involved in and I hope not,” said Mr Jenrick.

So on to the scientists, the people who would tell us what was what. They did not disappoint. First up was Professor Peter Horby, chairman of the UK Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag). He told Marr ministers should be “incredibly cautious” about any easing of the lockdown measures.

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“We have to be clear that this is not like a storm where we batten down the hatches and then it passes by and we walk out into the sunshine and it’s gone.

“It’s still out there. Most of us have not had this virus. So if we get this wrong it will very quickly increase across the population and we will be back in a situation of crisis.”

Later we heard from Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge. The statistician told UK Ministers off last week for using an article he had written about the complexities involved in comparing death rates across countries to warn against making any comparisons at all.

He tweeted: “Polite request to PM and others: please stop using my Guardian article to claim we cannot make any international comparisons yet. I refer only to detailed league tables. Of course we should now use other countries to try and learn why our numbers are high.”

He had more to say by the time Marr came around, particularly on the daily 5pm Downing Street briefings. How well are they working, asked Marr.

“I watched yesterday’s and frankly I found it completely embarrassing,” said the professor. The figure given for number of tests done, for instance, included those that had been posted out.

“It is not trustworthy communication of statistics. It is such a missed opportunity. There is a public out there who are broadly very supportive of the measures, they are hungry for details, for facts.

“Yet they get fed this “number theatre” which seems to be coordinated much more by a Number Ten communications team rather than genuinely trying to inform people about what’s going on. I just wish the data was being brought together and presented by people who really knew its strengths and limitations, and could treat the audience with some respect.”

Later, Mr Jenrick said if there were better ways of presenting the numbers they would be considered. “If we can do that we should and will do that.”

See, it might have been worth the Minister turning up after all.


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