Boris Johnson has been told get a grip of Downing Street’s coronavirus communications strategy after a “drip feed” of press briefings over the crisis sparked confusion.
ITV published a report on Saturday, citing a ‘senior government source’, saying the over-70s would be asked to self-isolate for as long as four months to protect themselves from the disease.
But the significant new measure was not officially confirmed until Sunday, when health secretary Matt Hancock officially admitted in a Sky News interview that ministers would “soon” ask elderly people to stay at home.
It came amid a flurry of newspaper reports, many quoting unnamed Number 10 sources, outlining different measures the government has planned – some of which not seen “since war time” – including the army guarding hospitals.
Hancock has also been personally criticised for placing a comment piece in the Daily Telegraph, which initially appeared behind a paywall and revealed the government would ask manufacturers to switch production to build ventilators to treat the sick.
In a series of tweets on Saturday morning, opposition MPs and public figures told ministers the “drip feed” approach of making “unaccountable anonymous briefings” to journalists was “dangerous” and risked undermining public trust in the government’s approach in a series of tweets on Saturday morning.
Keir Starmer, the frontrunner to be the next Labour leader, called for an end to anonymous press briefings by Number 10 and called for daily press conferences on the crisis from ministers.
He said: “I am deeply concerned that over the past 48 hours ministers have been failing in their responsibilities to provide consistent and transparent public health advice.
“To allow anonymous and speculative briefings to journalists about a significant step-change in the government’s response to the outbreak is irresponsible.
“At a time of national crisis, we need a government that is offering openness and transparency, not confusion and uncertainty.”
The Department of Health and Social Care confirmed on Saturday that the number of deaths in the UK had doubled, taking the total to 21, while the number of cases hit 1,140 - an increase of 342 from Friday’s figure of 798.
It comes amid clamour from the public for information over how best to shield their loved ones from the potentially-fatal virus.
Some supermarket shelves have been emptied over the last 24 hours as people scramble to stock up on supplies of essentials such as toilet toll.
Hancock insisted the government was doing all it could to protect life.
He told the Andrew Marr Show the UK had not ruled out following other countries and closing restaurants, bars and other shops to prevent the spread, and added a “massive community response” was needed to tackle Covid-19.
Pressed on when millions of Britons will be asked to stay at home for up to four months during an appearance, he said: “That will be in the coming weeks.”