An investigation has been launched in Whitehall after details of the government’s plans to introduce stricter national lockdown measures next week were leaked to newspapers.
The Times reported on Friday night that the prime minister was considering imposing a national lockdown early next week. According to the report, Boris Johnson met with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, and the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove to discuss the steep rise in infections, and was expected to hold a press conference on Monday.
Other newspapers, including the Daily Mail and the Sun, also wrote that a national lockdown was expected to be announced next week, which reportedly led Downing Street to launch a leak inquiry to uncover the source of the story.
The government has come under fire for failing to release the information directly to emergency services and businesses.
John Apter, the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, demanded “clear communication” from the government on coronavirus restrictions, saying a leak created a “media frenzy, causes confusion and … encourages some to make the most of their pre-lockdown time”.
To those briefing selective media on a potential national lockdown please understand the impact this has. It creates a media frenzy, causes confusion and ahead of any official announcement encourages some to make the most of their pre lockdown time. This is not a good mix!
— John Apter (@PFEW_Chair) October 31, 2020
Dr Adam Marshall, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said that briefing newspapers before businesses forced the latter to “wait and worry”.
“If the government is planning another national lockdown it must say so immediately, rather than allow business and market confidence to be further eroded by speculation,” Marshall said.
“The media briefings have to stop. The government needs to speak honestly with the nation, setting out a clear plan, the evidence for its actions, and significant increases in the support available for businesses and employees facing the hardship of no demand or the crushing blow of closure.”
This is not the first time the government has been criticised for releasing information to national newspapers before affected communities.
Earlier this month, the Sheffield city region mayor, Dan Jarvis, said “frustrations had bubbled over” among northern mayors when they found out about lockdown measures in their areas through newspaper reports.
In September, the Speaker of the House of Commons accused Hancock of “running this chamber ragged” by deciding to brief the media about changes in restrictions before informing parliament.
“I accept that decisions have been taken in a fast-moving situation, but timings for statements are known to ministers,” Sir Lindsay Hoyle told MPs.