Opinion

#WhereIsTheInterpreter: Downing Street faces a lose-lose situation at the first briefing in No. 9

Whatever the UK Government decides to do in terms of providing a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter on Monday, it’s a case of damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

At last. After first announcing plans for White House-style televised press briefings back in July last year, Downing Street is finally starting up the conferences from a new studio in No. 9 next week, having splashed £2.6 million in the process.

With Deaf campaigners having spent the past year calling on the Government to provide an in-person BSL interpreter for its briefings on the coronavirus, and the Cabinet Office repeatedly rejecting their pleas, the Deaf community will be watching closely to see if space really was an issue when it came to getting an interpreter into the room next door in No 10.

That’s the excuse the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport gave in response to a Parliamentary petition in May. “In line with Public Health England (PHE) guidelines,” they said, “it is not possible to safely include a physical British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter in the room for daily briefings as this would require additional operations staff such as an additional cameraman to be present.

“At Downing Street the Government is working within the constraints of a historical site with limited space.”

This stance was dismantled perfectly by Women and Equalities Select Committee chair Caroline Nokes MP earlier this year when she said the Government simply needed to “find a bigger room”. They had plenty of rooms at their disposal beforehand, and now they’ve got a room so big they can fit a Henry Hoover in it.

But the extortionate cost of the room could well be the UK Government’s downfall, because spending £2.6 million on a fancy new room only to argue once again that you can’t fit an interpreter in there shows serious incompetence. With the Government currently being sued over their failure to provide BSL access over the past year, such poor planning would only weaken their legal argument, and cause a headache so bad they’ll need a lateral flow test.

Don’t think things will be any better for them if they do end up providing an interpreter on Monday. While it would be good news (depending on how the person appears on our TV screens, of course – we would need to see Boris, the slides and the interpreter), I understand the question in terms of the court case then becomes: if you can provide an in-person interpreter now, why couldn’t you hire one for the past 120 or so briefings over the past year?

For what it’s worth, a Downing Street source told The Limping Chicken that they plan to make sure BSL interpretation is provided, but that isn’t a confirmation, nor does it reveal in what format the potential interpreter would be seen. It’s all raising a lot of questions, and we’ll have to wait a few days before we can get the answers.

Never has a Monday been so exciting…


Photo: Pippa Fowles/No. 10 Downing Street/Flickr.

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