The media has a responsibility to report on COVID-19 deaths

Good Friday saw the UK set yet another unwelcome record in the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, as nine hundred and eighty patients died in a twenty-four-hour period in hospitals across the country. It marks the largest single-day death toll of any European country other than France, which has decided, unlike the UK, to include deaths in social care in its published figures. Public health officials believe that the figure of fatalities will continue to rise over the Easter weekend, yet much of the media’s attention remains focused on the improving condition of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was released from intensive care on Thursday.

While Johnson’s plight has, in many ways, united the country, the continued focus on his progress in hospital does little to emphasise the gravity of the situation to ordinary Britons, an issue of particular significance given the potential for lockdown fatigue amidst good weather over the Easter period. It is now the duty of the media to level with the British public about the scale of the danger that we face and to do its bit to ensure the NHS is protected and lives are saved.

Deaths from COVID-19 across UK hospitals were reported on Good Friday at an approximate rate of one every ninety seconds, yet The Sun led with news of the Prime Minister’s release from intensive care. “BORIS IS OUT: Now that really is a Good Friday!”, read the headline. Johnson’s release has been greeted with relief by much of the public, but it is doubtful that The Sun’s celebratory tone will strike much of a chord with the families of the nine thousand (and counting) people whose lives have been claimed by the virus.

Sky News helpfully informed us of Johnson’s film choices in his hospital bed at London’s St Thomas’ Hospital. Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I is joined by the Lord of the Rings trilogy on the billing, and the public may rest assured that the Prime Minister is now in a fit enough state to play Sudoku. Other news outlets instead focused on reports of British police enforcing the lockdown and the ongoing risks to NHS staff over the lack of personal protective equipment. Both are stories of undeniable significance during the epidemic. However, uniting all of these news outlets is a shared unwillingness to make headlines of the headline figure, that is, a record nine hundred and eighty deaths in a single day. This number should shock us to the very core. COVID-19 has already killed more Britons than any conflict Britain has engaged in since the Second World War, and the numbers continue to rise each day. The extraordinary nature of this crisis and the vast discrepancies in how symptoms display themselves can sometimes allow us to feel invincible to the virus. The harsh reality is that hundreds of thousands of Britons have already lost loved ones in a crisis that is growing in severity every day.

Calling for increased coverage of the headline death toll figure is not an attempt to sow panic amongst the public, nor is it rooted in a desire to accelerate the inevitable recriminations which the government will face. It is, however, a vital step as we attempt to emphasise the severity of the situation to the public, particularly given the confused messaging which defined the opening stages of the outbreak in Britain. Let us not forget that little more than a month ago, we were urged to continue as normal, as the Prime Minister, in his typical jovial manner, boasted that he ‘shook hands with everybody’ on a ward with COVID-19 patients.

The issue is this: if the grave threat of COVID-19 is not made immediately apparent, lockdown rules will continue to be violated by a portion of the British public. Worryingly common misconceptions of the virus as akin to the common cold will also continue to spread unabated. Strangely, the growing death toll is now one of our most effective weapons in ensuring that the lockdown is respected; the NHS is protected, and that people stay at home and save lives. It is, therefore, incumbent on our media outlets to report this figure honestly. Above all, it needs to be reported in a way that draws the public’s attention to the genuine threat to all of our lives.

Owen Harding-Best