From the file

Halloween 2020 | Leaks, delays, mistakes and recrimination. This Halloween, there was nothing scarier than the British government’s handling of the second lockdown

Graphic content

Friday 20 November 2020

A horrific slideshow accompanied the lockdown announcement. One of Tortoise’s in-house designers has fixed it.


Sixteen slides preceded the prime minister’s announcement of a second lockdown. Ten of them, presented by chief medical officer Chris Whitty, looked back at past data. Six of them, presented by chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance, looked at our projected future. All very straightforward, until they appeared on the television. The slides had been cropped – no headers, no footnotes, half descriptions, chopped-up keys and missing axes – making them impossible to understand. I’ve taken the content from three of these and fine-tuned them to see what an uncropped and legible (in that order) set of government slides might look like.

Whitty’s first, which mapped case rates in England, was missing a chunk of south Cornwall. Not an ideal way to start. Nor to try and engage an audience in a life-affecting set of statistics.

Whitty kept going. Still no headers. Still few keys. Axes were hit and miss. This meant he was having to explain every chart in full detail, rather than let the charts do the talking. None more so than his ninth – which looked like a screenshot of a spreadsheet someone had taken ten minutes before the start.

By the last slide, even the advisors were admitting these were getting “complicated”. There are too many labels. Arrows, rules and axis lines have been thrown about the page like matchsticks. Somewhere amongst the clutter there are some important annotations on NHS bed capacity.

While fine-tuning, I haven’t changed any of the content in these slides. But if I could change it, and providing the underlying data is published alongside the slide, I would make it far more basic. Keep: dates of when NHS bed capacities are projected to be exceeded. Leave out: the axes, lower and upper projection limits, lines showing past bed usage. Vallance’s last slide could instead have looked like this:

For all sixteen slides it might take a few hours to make refinements like these – a similar period of time to that of the press conference delay. But if you’ve listened to my colleague Matt d’Ancona’s audio essay you might guess that this task was low down on the government’s to-do list that evening. Or could it have just been illegible? In a font size too small, and cropped?

Sixteen slides preceded the prime minister’s announcement of a second lockdown. Ten of them, presented by chief medical officer Chris Whitty, looked back at past data. Six of them, presented by chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance, looked at our projected future. All very straightforward, until they appeared on the television. The slides had been cropped – no headers, no footnotes, half descriptions, chopped-up keys and missing axes – making them impossible to understand. I’ve taken the content from three of these and fine-tuned them to see what an uncropped and legible (in that order) set of government slides might look like.

Whitty’s first, which mapped case rates in England, was missing a chunk of south Cornwall. Not an ideal way to start. Nor to try and engage an audience in a life-affecting set of statistics.

Whitty kept going. Still no headers. Still few keys. Axes were hit and miss. This meant he was having to explain every chart in full detail, rather than let the charts do the talking. None more so than his ninth – which looked like a screenshot of a spreadsheet someone had taken ten minutes before the start.

By the last slide, even the advisors were admitting these were getting “complicated”. There are too many labels. Arrows, rules and axis lines have been thrown about the page like matchsticks. Somewhere amongst the clutter there are some important annotations on NHS bed capacity.

While fine-tuning, I haven’t changed any of the content in these slides. But if I could change it, and providing the underlying data is published alongside the slide, I would make it far more basic. Keep: dates of when NHS bed capacities are projected to be exceeded. Leave out: the axes, lower and upper projection limits, lines showing past bed usage. Vallance’s last slide could instead have looked like this:

For all sixteen slides it might take a few hours to make refinements like these – a similar period of time to that of the press conference delay. But if you’ve listened to my colleague Matt d’Ancona’s audio essay you might guess that this task was low down on the government’s to-do list that evening. Or could it have just been illegible? In a font size too small, and cropped?