As a radio presenter you often face dilemmas covering controversial subjects. When there's a terror incident, at what point does it become OK to speculate about who perpetrated it? And this week we've faced this question: how do you cover the Coronavirus without scaremongering and exaggerating the threat?
Next week, this dilemma will become even more real. I have a genuine gut instinct that things are about to get a whole lot worse, not just across the world, but here too.
In one sense you might think that with only 35 confirmed cases and no deaths in this country (although, of course, one British citizen has died on the cruise ship anchored off Yokohama), it's ridiculous to think that there will be a raft of deaths in the UK. But on the other hand, we know that things could very easily spiral.
I doubt whether we're being told the truth about what's going on in Iran, where the streets are empty in Tehran and it is rumoured that more than 200 people have died. Italy is the country in the EU which has experienced most cases and most deaths (35 at the time of writing). The lesson is that it's not just the government's responsibility to try to prevent the virus spreading, it's up to all of us as individuals too.
The fact that The Louvre has announced it is closing its doors for the foreseeable future shows how serious the French are taking it. The Japanese have closed all their schools for two months. It would be quite something for a whole host of London tourist attractions to close and for local authorities to close schools, but I can see it happening. And soon.
No wonder stock markets have plummeted in the last seven days. I've had a whole host of calls this week from people telling me how their companies are already being affected or soon could be. Lurid newspaper headlines point out that from an economic viewpoint it could be worse than the financial crash of 2008. One simple effect has been to totally ruin the plans of shipping lines, who have a stockpile of empty containers in China, while in the US there is a shortage because the containers aren't where they are supposed to be.
The Health Secretary, Matt Hanock, was on the Andrew Marr Show this morning putting in a calm and unflappable performance. It's clear he recognises the seriousness of the situation, but as a politician he's in a tricky situation. He doesn't want to cause mass panic, but on the other hand he has to ensure that we all realise what could happen. I thought he struck the right balance.
It would not surprise me at all if we saw the start of preventative measures ordered by the government and public authorities by the end of the week. Then we'll no doubt be in the middle of a full blown debate about the rights and wrongs of our civil liberties being curtailed.
But this is what we pay politicians to do - make decisions on our behalf. And this time they could really be life and death decisions.
The PM is chairing a COBRA meeting tomorrow morning and Matt Hancock will be publishing what he calls a "Battleplan" at some stage during the next few days. This plan can't contain all aspects of the government's planning, but it will hopefully set out in detail what we as individuals should do to protect ourselves.
Which brings me on the Public Health England. On their website they state...
We exist to protect and improve the nation's health and wellbeing, and reduce health inequalities.
Part of that remit involves explaining to the British public how people can protect themselves from Coronavirus. The trouble is they appear to think that the only programme people listen to on the radio is the Today programme. Virtually every day for the last month my producers have asked a representative from Public Health England to come on the programme. On not a single occasion have they had anyone available. And yet I constantly hear their spokesman Paul Cosford on Radio 4. Each time my producers call them the conversation goes something like this.
LBC: We're covering the coronavirus on our Newshour at 7pm this evening. We'd very much like to hear from Public Health England.
PHE: What questions would you ask?
LBC: Er, questions about coronavirus.
PHE: Like what?
LBC: Well, what the situation is and what precuations should be taken by people.
PHE: We'll get back to you.
But they don't. We then chase, only be told that no one is available. Every time. I'm told other LBC shows have had the same response. So far as I know, they haven't appeared on LBC at all during this saga.
On one occasion when my producer expressed mild, non Priti Patel-like, exasperation with them, they put the phone down.
We don't have any entitlement to demand anybody appears on our airwaves, but surely any communications plan must include PHE representatives fanning across the media and appearing wherever they're asked to in a situation like this. They should not only be appearing on Radio 4, but on other BBC stations. LBC and local stations too, getting the message out there.
On Thursday I texted Matt Hancock, because I felt he ought to know what is (or rather isn't) being done in his name.
Just to let you know we have been bidding for someone from Public Health England to come on our show to talk about Coronavirus every day for the last three weeks. So have other lbc shows. They haven’t provided anyone for the station once. They have got very rude on the telephone to my producers who query why they go on BBC shows but refuse to do us. I tell you this just to let you know what is going on within your department. If they don’t tell the public what’s going on and what precautions they should take, who should? Beats me why they even have a Communications department!
I won't reveal his response, but I live in hope that PHE will finally wake up and be a little more pro-active this week.
Three weeks ago I hosted a Monday night panel with four people talking about Coronavirus. It wasn't meant to be a phone-in but we had so many people calling in unprompted that we put them on air. The general public has an enormous appetite for knowledge about Coronavirus and it is surely PHE's job now to enlighten them by any means possible. I find it inexplicable that they will happily shell out hundreds of thousands of pounds in newspaper advertising, yet seem reluctant to get free air time to explain what's going on and what precautions people should take.
My studio door remains open to them, but if they don't appear, each day in our Newshour I will take them to task for it. And they'll have only themselves to blame.