So what does the British government do with a problem like coronavirus? Our country is not unique in learning on the job how to handle a massive crisis. The Spanish have issued confused messaging about travel between first and second homes, the US federal government has bounced from blunder to blunder, and the Brazilian government has, in various ways, tried to ignore the problem altogether. Even each of Germany’s sixteen federal states are lifting restrictions in their own way, an approach that makes the UK’s recent four-nation divergence look like a picture of harmony.
But another government’s failure does not absolve the shortcomings of our own, which must be discussed.
In a move that appears designed to invite transgressions, the UK Government has been teasing the public with Wednesday’s loosening of restrictions for weeks, but especially during the final few days before the new measures were announced. In the middle of last week (beginning May 4), tabloids chose to strike a triumphant tone on their front pages—buoyed by briefings from anonymous Government sources—to celebrate the imminent loosening of lockdown measures. An odd sight since it also coincided with the UK death toll passing 30,000. There were also widespread reports that the UK government would be dropping its ‘Stay At Home’ advice. Crucially, these reports filled the front pages of papers and crowded the tops of news websites only a few days before a VE Day/Bank Holiday weekend that was expected to bring good weather.
One of the tenets of good communication is to anticipate how you will be received and to tailor your message in accordance with your objectives. To indicate a relaxing of the rules surrounding a deadly virus immediately before a sunny Bank Holiday weekend, and one that many Brits will have wanted to celebrate—especially those in one of the most vulnerable categories: the elderly—must be seen as grossly irresponsible.
As the Prime Minister explained in the House of Commons,, the measures were announced over a two day period (an initial speech on Sunday, with a follow-up in the House of Commons on Monday) to give individuals and businesses time to implement them by Wednesday, when they would come into full effect. Which begs the question: why had newspapers been briefed on information that wasn’t confirmed to the public until days later? Actions like these degrade what is crucial information.
Admittedly, for many, the news of an easing of restrictions would’ve been greeted with a nod and a shrug. Things have not changed yet, they would’ve thought, so we will stay at home.
But millions of Brits either live alone or with people they barely know. Most of these include either the elderly (some in residential homes, unable to receive visitors) or the urban under-thirties. For them, offering tantalising details of liberty in the context of a global pandemic, after so many weeks of isolation, can be its own particular kind of pressure and cruelty. For them and others, these pre-emptive reports would’ve signalled the chance to enjoy a much-needed Bank Holiday treat. Whether that be an extra, frivolous trip to the local shops, or a more audacious gathering at a friend’s house to join in the nation’s VE Day festivities.
In a public health context, none of this is worth ignoring. It is right to ask: how many unnecessary excursions outside, or cans were drunk in the park, because people felt like things were getting better? It strikes me as (at least) odd that UK ministers did not anticipate that a large minority of Brits, after a historically unprecedented seven weeks in lockdown, would jump at the chance to stretch their legs a little more than usual on being told things were now getting better. What difference does a couple of days make, after all? The sun is out, life is (for many, still) good and despite the feeling of impending doom felt by us all—I’m sure—the common aphorism still stands: you only live once. An adage that feels especially relevant now.
More worryingly yet, there was already significant evidence that lockdown measures were edging towards breaking point. Data from black box monitors and breakdown recoveries from 30 April to 7 May show traffic on the roads at its highest since lockdown began. Despite a ban on all but essential travel, an RAC survey from the same week found that 5% of respondents admitted to taking their car out specifically to buy alcohol or to travel to DIY shops, and 4% were travelling by road to exercise, despite it being prohibited. An additional 1% are claimed to have just been “taking their car solely to give it a run”. One can assume that travel that wasn’t by car had relaxed similarly.
What is the alternative, you ask? Keep the public in the dark like children who cannot be trusted to act responsibly? No, of course not. But if one benefit of the daily Downing Street press conference is the clear and concise communication of important information, why supplement it with briefings to favoured journalists at national newspapers? Especially when the information reported by those very same papers has often been exaggerated or contradictory.
To save the critical details for the scheduled daily announcements is not just an act of much-needed restraint, but one demonstrating immense responsibility. I have to concur with one NHS oncologist when he says that “these headlines from the UK tabloid press are going to cost more lives and prolong the problem.”
Another worry is the lack of communication between the UK government and the devolved and regional administrations. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has responded to the UK Government’s lack of coordination by saying that “we should not be reading [each] other’s plans in newspapers.” If a coherent UK-wide approach was to be continued, she said, then the government “must go at the pace of the part of the UK that is further behind in the infection curve”.
The municipal mayors of Liverpool and Manchester have added to the chorus of doubt by emphasising that their parts of the country are not yet in line with the downward trend seen in the rest of the UK. On Monday, in the House of Commons, Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition, expressed a hope that we could “exit lockdown as one United Kingdom, just as we entered it.” And it’s a sentiment worth keeping in mind. Currently, it is an offence (if you’re an English resident) to enter another nation of the United Kingdom for non-essential travel. A visceral offence to the idea of a “United Kingdom” if there ever was one.
Some of the complexities of this new arrangement are easier to navigate than others. Most, if not all, will understand the more lax guidance about exercise and socialising: the two-metre rule must be kept, and we must only meet one person outside of our household. But the reasoning for other instructions are more opaque. For example, travellers from France and the Republic of Ireland are exempt from the newly announced quarantine measures; rules that are compulsory for all other international travellers. But aside from its diplomatic bona fides, how do measures like these make sense in the age of the invisible, microscopic killer? Does being a country adjacent to the United Kingdom confer unique immunity among its residents? If so, we have yet to hear about it from epidemiologists.
Other issues remain. While a more comprehensive 50-page roadmap has been published this week, it was neither ready in time for the announcement on Sunday, nor early enough for many businesses to act on it by Wednesday. Downing Street officials appear transfixed by the usual media timetable used to communicate with writers for newspapers and current affairs magazines, but appear unable to change these habits to respond to the needs of businesses, who need effective and timely communication more than ever. Unlike the relationship between government and the newsroom, businesses need a little more time and care in order to ready themselves for yet another unprecedented change. A change none of them expected or planned for. As it stands, this need appears to be poorly understood.
Officials in the British government, and those reporting on their activities, should remember that most people do not pay anywhere near the same amount of attention to the news that they do. Messaging must be expertly crafted, and delivered in a way that minimises confusion and encourages compliance. Reporting on the latest advice regarding a global pandemic is a delicate business. At the moment, it resembles a bull in a china shop.
Here’s a tagline the government should get its teeth around: shoot the bull, clean up the message, save lives. Maybe then we will see a more productive communications strategy for the pandemic. One that manages to breed caution, reduce complacency, and maintain a sense of common endeavour while we battle collectively through this unique time in our lives. It is hard enough as it is without the government bull destroying what are, in most cases, our attempts to do our very best.