The UK Government has today been accused of ‘taking a leaf out of Donald Trump’s playbook’ after using social media to publicly denounce journalists.
Ministers have come under increasing scrutiny from the press during the pandemic for a series of failings which have led to the UK suffering the worst death toll in Europe.
The latest tactic has seen the Department of Health use its official Twitter account, which has 700,000 followers, to dispute negative newspaper articles highlighting shortcomings it doesn’t agree with.
Officials have lashed out at a number of credible outlets and reporters, branding their stories ‘false’, ‘inaccurate’, ‘misleading’ and ‘complete fabrications’.
The strategy was today likened to that of the US President, who has often accused journalists of writing ‘fake news’ and being ‘enemies of the people’ in a bid to undermine the media and silence his critics.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran told MailOnline it is an ‘attempt to undermine the media straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook’.
‘It is bizarre that the government is spending its time disputing stories on Twitter instead of addressing the legitimate concerns that have been raised,’ she added.
Olivia Blake, Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam, added: ‘Rather than shoot the messenger, the Government should listen and learn from what NHS and social care staff have told us about the problems in our health and care systems.’
Journalism unions said the Government clearly wanted to ‘criticise and troll’ journalists who ‘highlight its inadequacies’.
The new tactic was first deployed on April 21 – at the height of the crisis – in response to a story by the Guardian.
The newspaper claimed nursing shortages were forcing Nightingale hospitals – built to take pressure off ICU wards during the crisis – to turn away patients.
DHSC officials branded the story ‘misleading’, claiming there were no such shortages and that nurses were trained and ready to deployed if they were needed.
On May 15, the DHSC tweeted that ITV had ‘published false, inaccurate and misleading claims’ about stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) being damaged.
The news outlet had claimed that ‘chaos’ at the warehouse of one of the UK’s main suppliers of PPE, Movianto, ‘may have resulted in delays in deploying vital supplies to healthcare workers’.
‘The Guardian and ITV News have reported false, inaccurate and misleading claims about the management of the pandemic influenza stockpile and its subsequent deployment,’ a DHSC tweet said.
‘There has been no damage to any of the stockpile and it has been safely and securely stored at all times,’ it added.
The Government department then branded a June 19 story by former Guardian reporter Ian Cobain a ‘complete fabrication’ when he claimed PPE batches imported from Turkey had went AWOL.
The journalist’s exclusive peice in the Middle East Eye claimed the DHSC had lost records of protective garments being imported from Turkey to cope with shortages.
But the Department fired back on Twitter, rubbishing the report and lumping blame on the NHS, which it said made the order in the first place.
This week the DHSC fired back at Sky News and the BBC for reporting that the NHS Test and Trace system had broken a key data protection law.
In response, officials replied publicly to say the reports were unfounded and ‘there was no evidence data was being used unlawfully’.
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union for Journalists (NUJ), told MailOnline: ‘The Government’s communications strategy has certainly been interesting to follow.
‘They appear to want to criticise and troll journalists who have highlighted their strategic inadequacies.
‘Picking on specific individuals on twitter is clearly not the best way to approach issuing official Government communications, reactions and rebuttals.’
A Government spokesperson told MailOnline: ‘We make no apologies for calling out factually misleading or inaccurate content online.
Last week it emerged that the Department of Health might have been counting Covid-19 deaths figures wrong, in the latest scandal to hit the department.
The DHSC ‘paused’ publication of the daily coronavirus death figures on July 17 as Health Secretary Matt Hancock orders an urgent review into how the numbers are calculated.
British researchers highlighted ‘statistical flaws’ in the way the deaths are reported across England, saying they are left looking far worse than any other part of the country.
Public Health England’s figures figures feed into the daily death statistics published by the DHSC, with information from Public Health Wales, Health Protection Scotland and the Northern Ireland Public Health Agency also fed in.
According to a note on the Government’s website, the review means it is ‘pausing’ the publication of the daily death figure ‘while this is resolved’.
The daily DHSC data represents the number of reported deaths of people who have tested positive for Covid-19, who have died in all settings.
But in a blog entitled ‘Why no-one can ever recover from Covid-19 in England – a statistical anomaly’, Professors Yoon Loke, from the University of East Anglia, and Carl Heneghan, from the University of Oxford, said more robust data is needed.
They argued that PHE looks at whether a person has ever tested positive and whether they are still alive at a later date.
This means anyone who has ever tested positive for Covid-19 and then dies is included in the death figures, even if they have died from something else.