Covid-19: between press points and star doctors, how are our European neighbors informed about health measures?

Rumors, ministerial consultations and presidential address. In France, the announcement of confinement in the face of the spread of Covid-19 has followed the same pattern since the start of the health crisis. When the evolution of measures is less strict, the option of a press conference by Jean Castex, surrounded by a handful of ministers, is preferred. As for the figures of the epidemic, the daily press briefing of the health authorities has been replaced by a detailed press release. What about our neighbors? Small tour of Europe of government announcements relating to the coronavirus crisis.

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On the other side of the Channel, the British got used to this meeting. Two to three times a week, at 5 p.m., Downing Street organizes a press briefing on the evolution of the epidemic and health measures. An assured exercise, graphics to support, in duo or in trio: a minister accompanied by one or two health officials.

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and the Minister of Health, Matt Hancock, follow one another behind a lectern with flashy inscriptions, in black capital letters on a yellow and red background: “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” (“Stay home, protect the health system, save lives”).

Established in March, these press conferences, broadcast on television and on social networks, were initially held every day, before becoming more ad hoc, from June, according to The Independent*. Since December and the discovery of a new variant in the United Kingdom, their rhythm has increased again “markedly intensified”, notes Matthieu Boisseau, correspondent for France Televisions in London.

In Italy, during the first wave that hit the country hard, the head of civil protection, Angelo Borrelli, presented a very frequent health report every day. His interventions are now less frequent and more rarely broadcast by news channels, reports Alban Mikoczy, correspondent for France Televisions in Rome.

In Belgium, the infectious disease specialist and interfederal spokesperson for the fight against Covid-19, Yves Van Laethem, presents, several times a week, epidemic situation reports. But it is above all the press conferences of the Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, which are scrutinized, at each exit from the consultation committee, the Belgian equivalent of the health defense council. The committee, which brings together politicians and health officials, meets “about every two weeks”, describes Julien Gasparutto, correspondent for France Televisions in Brussels.

The press conference therefore remains the preferred format. Conversely, the exercise of the solemn address of the President of the Republic, to which Emmanuel Macron has given himself six times since the start of the epidemic, is less common among our neighbors. In Italy, the first announcement of major measures is reserved for the President of the Council, Giuseppe Conte, whose communication has adjusted over the course of the epidemic. Speeches gave way to press conferences. “Giuseppe Conte sometimes took the floor after midnight, to announce effective measures the next morning at nine o’clock”, remembers Alban Mikoczy.

Some Italians who had not followed the nocturnal intervention were therefore not aware of the rules applicable to their awakening.

Alban Mikoczy, France Télévisions correspondent in Rome

to franceinfo

In the Netherlands, the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, recently lent himself to the exercise of the formal declaration, by announcing a national confinement, in mid-December, from his office in The Hague. In this country attached to individual freedoms, the leader announced this turn of the screw in “a message imbued with an unusual solemnity (…) delivered from a place that the heads of government reserve for situations of real crisis”, highlighted Le Monde (paid article). Across the Channel, Boris Johnson also formalized, Monday, January 4, the establishment of a new confinement, during a statement from Downing Street. An intervention format “extremely rare”, underlines the journalist Matthieu Boisseau.

These speeches are just as exceptional in Germany. In March, Angela Merkel spoke to her fellow citizens to discuss “the biggest challenge” from the country “since World War II”. His first crisis intervention in fifteen years at the Chancellery. “This is the only time [au cours de la crise sanitaire] where she was a little lyrical “, analysis Laurent Desbonnets, correspondent for France Télévisions in Berlin.

Germany is not a country where the president decides everything. This is certainly why Angela Merkel does not multiply the solemn declarations.

Laurent Desbonnets, correspondent for France Télévisions in Berlin

to franceinfo

In Germany, where power is shared between the federal level and that of the Länder, one word sums up the management of the health crisis: consultation. Decisions are made “in common”, underlines Laurent Desbonnets, during summits between Angela Merkel and the representatives of the 16 Länder. The latter benefit from important prerogatives, including in health matters. “Bavaria imposed the FFP2 mask, but not the rest of Germany”, illustrates the correspondent of France Télévisions. From the outside, a kind of “cacophony” may seem to rule, but the situation “is not experienced as such by the Germans”, accustomed to this political operation, notes the journalist.

In Italy, health rules also vary from region to region. The country counts “an equivalent of the Minister of Health” for each region, notes Alban Mikoczy. These officials detail the health announcements on local TV and radio channels, or via press releases. Same operation in Spain, “very decentralized country”, notes Mathieu de Taillac, Madrid correspondent for Radio France.

The central government establishes a legal framework by decree, and the regions can adjust the measures.

Mathieu de Taillac, Madrid correspondent for Radio France

to franceinfo

The regions have good room for maneuver and “can for example announce the closure of bars and shops”, details Mathieu de Taillac. However, they do not have the possibility of extending the duration of the general curfew, which cannot begin before 10 p.m. and must end at 6 a.m.

In addition to traditional communication channels, the Covid-19 epidemic has given some European leaders the opportunity to increase their presence on social networks. On his Instagram account followed by 366,000 subscribers, the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, for example launched an appeal to participate in the massive screening organized in the country in December.

Angela Merkel regularly discusses the country’s health situation in a weekly video posted on her Instagram account, which has 1.6 million subscribers (that of Emmanuel Macron displays 2.2 million). Already very present on social networks before the pandemic, Boris Johnson regularly relays the latest measures in force on Twitter. In video, he also answers questions from British citizens.

As for the frequency of announcements among our European neighbors, the evolution of the health situation seems, as in France, to set the pace. In mid-January, the German Chancellor consulted urgently with the leaders of the Länder, with a view to a new turn of the screw. A meeting initially scheduled for the end of the month, but advanced in the face of fears related to the new variants.

In the United Kingdom, the pace of decisions is difficult to anticipate “, concedes Matthieu Boisseau. The establishment of confinement in England, at the beginning of January “was not the plan” government, reports BBC News *. Boris Johnson’s announcement was in part precipitated by the decision of his counterpart Nicola Sturgeon, to establish total containment in Scotland.

Boris Johnson has always waited for political and scientific pressure to take action.

Matthieu Boisseau, France Télévisions correspondent in London

to franceinfo

European governments must also deal with leaks – more or less voluntary – in the media. In the United Kingdom, as in France, measures are circulating “All the time” in the press before the official announcements, testifies Matthieu Boisseau. In the fall, thehe decision to lockdown in November, taken at a ministerial meeting in a select committee, was unveiled a few hours later in the media. Boris Johnson was then forced to formalize the measure in the wake, although many details are still being finalized “, report it Daily Mail*.

These leaks are much less frequent in Germany and Italy, where the latest political indiscretion concerned the reconfinement of the country for the end of year celebrations, a rumor confirmed by Giuseppe Conte in his speech on December 18.

Across Europe, the health crisis and its share of announcements have also revealed new public faces. In France, Jérôme Salomon, the director general of health, is thus became one of the figures in the fight against Covid-19. On the Italian side, Angelo Borrelli’s midnight blue uniform and austere demeanor are familiar to everyone. Across the Channel, Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England is at all the press conferences. The epidemiologist has also embodied several prevention TV spots, and has become “more famous than Britney Spears“for some, as BBC News * reported.

Spain has also found its “Mr. Covid”, in the person of Fernando Simón, director of the Health Emergency Coordination Center of the Ministry of Health, reports Mathieu de Taillac. His piercing gaze and his pedagogical tone have “reassured, even seduced the Spaniards”, observes the journalist. The hoarse-voiced fifty-something also made a name for himself by making the cover of a magazine, wearing a biker jacket, or by participating in a popular sport challenges show, in October 2020, “what made the Spanish opposition jump”, relieves Mathieu de Taillac.

These managers have inspired many photomontages, humorous videos, but also derivative products. Cups, masks and thermos with the effigy of the imperturbable Chris Witty are sold across the Channel. What to imagine Jérôme Salomon beach towels on the French coast this summer? In any case, the trend crosses borders. In Spain, the face of Doctor Fernando Simón has been printed on t-shirts and bags, as Euronews noted. The doctor responded with a smile, suggesting that part of the profits from the sales is “donated to NGOs”.

* Links marked with an asterisk refer to articles in English.

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