politics

What 8 days' national mourning for Prince Philip mean for government and Covid


The UK is in eight days of national mourning for Prince Philip, with Union flags at half mast on all government buildings until 8am next Sunday.

MPs will return early from their Easter break tomorrow for tributes to the Duke of Edinburgh led by Boris Johnson, sitting from 2.30pm until as late as 10pm.

The official Order Paper outlining the day’s Commons business carries just the single debate, for “an Humble Address” to the Queen with “deepest sympathies” and “heartfelt thanks”.

If you think this sounds like a vacuum of day-to-day government you’d be right. Other for essential public health business, all media activity has been suspended.

That means no Covid press conferences, no press releases other than for essential public health reasons, and no ministers on media interviews.

In accordance with protocol Labour have also withdrawn from public-facing activity during the mourning period.

So what does that mean for the running of government and the coronavirus pandemic? Here is a brief explanation.

How long is the period of mourning?

The government has declared a “period of national mourning” for the Duke’s death aged 99, which will end at midnight on Saturday 17 April.

This is so it can include the week leading up to and including his funeral at 3pm on Saturday, at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

“The Government understands that this is a difficult and sad time for many,” says a Cabinet Office document.

Ministers and civil servants are being told they should wear dark clothes and a black tie in any public-facing events.

However, photos of the Duke will remain in public buildings as they are until Covid restrictions ease.

And the public are being urged to sign an online book of condolence, rather than to turn up with flowers at palace or residence gates, due to Covid restrictions.



The public are being urged to sign an online book of condolence, rather than to turn up with flowers at palace or residence gates
The public are being urged to sign an online book of condolence, rather than to turn up with flowers at palace or residence gates

What does this mean for government announcements?

No Downing Street coronavirus press conferences will be held during the period of mourning, it is expected.

Ministers will also cancel planned visits and interviews – including daily interviews on breakfast TV slots, Sunday political shows, and Boris Johnson’s planned visit to a pub to raise a post-lockdown pint tomorrow.

This means ministers cannot be questioned on the issues of the day by the media. Labour are also withdrawing from interviews in the same way.

Release of any routine government press releases and policies to the public will be paused.

These will be put under the same restrictions as during ‘purdah’ – a period before elections when civil servants cannot issue press releases or announce policy.

Leaked guidance says “only essential public-facing activity” should be undertaken by government in the mourning period.

Any announcements need guidance first from a department’s top civil servant, and directors of communications have to personally approve any updates to government websites or Twitter accounts.

So does that mean no Covid information at all?

Not quite. Essential public health updates can continue to be released – as can data on things like cases, deaths and vaccinations.

Furthermore, government and council buildings are not meant to actually close. Only their communications departments are restricted.

“All public services and any services involved in the Government response to COVID-19 will continue as usual throughout the mourning period,” guidance says.

However, it’s been deemed Covid press conferences – such as those in No10 – should not go ahead. That will mean any update from the government is likely limited to written guidance without a chance to question ministers like Boris Johnson.



Boris Johnson will not be holding coronavirus press conferences this week
Boris Johnson will not be holding coronavirus press conferences this week

Will lockdown easing still go ahead on Monday in England?

Yes. Changes to lockdown rules allowing pubs, hairdressers and gyms to resume trading from Monday will go ahead as planned.

Guidance adds: “There is no expectation for businesses to close during the mourning period unless they wish to. This is a decision for individual organisations.”

However, firms may make arrangements for observing the national one-minute silence at 3pm next Saturday if they wish.

Will election campaigning go ahead?

Yes, from Tuesday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer agreed to a suspension on Friday when they spoke after hearing of Philip’s death.

The Conservatives and Labour have said campaigning will resume in full on Tuesday morning, before pausing again for the duke’s funeral on Saturday.



The Queen's husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, died aged 99 on Friday
The Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, died aged 99 on Friday

Is the government avoiding scrutiny or burying stories?

While simply following protocol for a major royal death, the long period of silence from government has drawn criticism online.

Writer David Schneider said: “A cynic might say that, as Northern Ireland burns, a government that does everything it can to avoid scrutiny might be happy to seize an opportunity to avoid scrutiny.”

The Mirror’s own Kevin Maguire observed: “The result is Johnson can’t be asked about Hancock and Sunak in the Cameron-Greensill scandal.”

Others have drawn comparisons with the 127,000 Covid-linked deaths so far in the UK, and the need to keep the public safe and informed in a pandemic.

It’s a simple fact that there will be less chance to scrutinise government ministers and Boris Johnson during the mourning period.

But would the government actively slip out bad news while attention is elsewhere? That’s another question.

While it’s certainly not impossible, historically this sort of thing tends to happen during a busy “normal” political day – such as the last day in Parliament before Christmas.

Purdah periods genuinely tend to be quite quiet because civil servants are bound by extremely strict rules on what the government can publish.

Non-royal updates on the government’s website since Friday have – so far – been reassuringly thin, but we’ll keep a look out in case that changes.

Parliament returns fully on Tuesday, meaning government business could ramp up at least a little bit.





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