The BBC has taken the unusual decision to stop making some of its local news programmes for an extended period because of staff shortages blamed on the coronavirus self-isolation “pingdemic”.
From Monday, BBC One’s Breakfast programme will no longer have local news bulletins covering English regions, while further regional programmes might be at risk if staff need to self-isolate amid rising cases of Covid-19.
The broadcaster said it hoped to be able to restart morning local news bulletins from September.
Although the immediate cause of the staffing crisis is the level of self-isolation alerts coming from the NHS Covid-19 app, many BBC staff said the situation highlighted the impact of deep cuts to staffing levels at the broadcaster over the last 10 years.
The crisis has left managers feeling that they had to sacrifice some of the BBC’s local television news output to allow staff to focus on the early evening news bulletins for their region. These programmes are consistently among the most watched shows on television, and opinion within the corporation was that they should not be allowed to fall off air.
Despite this, viewers in some areas could still find their main evening BBC news bulletin replaced by one produced by a neighbouring region, while some particularly local television schedules – with regional services differing from the main schedule – could vanish over the summer.
The BBC confirmed that it hoped to bring back the morning regional news updates in the autumn. A spokesperson said: “Like employers in every area of the economy, we’re experiencing unprecedented staffing shortages caused by Covid. Apart from a few exceptions, we have maintained a normal service so far. Our priority is to protect the most popular news programme on TV; the regional news at 6:30pm on BBC One. To do this, we are implementing some short-term measures to ease pressure on our teams.”
Employees working for multiple regional programmes said that the deep cuts to regional shows implemented in 2020 had left newsrooms unable to keep making programmes during periods of widespread staff absences, although the BBC also reduced parts of its news output last year before the cuts were implemented.
About one in six regional staff were made redundant across England, with many prominent presenters and reporters affected.
Remaining staff say they have faced heavier workloads, while the decision to only keep one host in each region means there are fewer back-up options in case a presenter is infected with Covid or told to self-isolate.
Some BBC local news programmes have already been shared across newsrooms because of staff shortages, with viewers in Cambridge and Norwich being shown the same half-hour evening news bulletin this week.
Although the regular English regional updates will be cut from the BBC Breakfast show, viewers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will continue to see bulletins for their regions.
Despite trumpeting the healthy viewing figures and high levels of viewer trust in its regional news output, the corporation has struggled to work out how to replace regional programmes such as Inside Out as part of its cost-saving plan. Any changes the broadcaster makes to local news are often fiercely opposed by politicians, especially MPs who fear losing a key route to broadcast to their constituents.