Andy Cowper: Covid-19—government communications need to build and sustain trust

The UK government’s communications on the covid-19 pandemic have been a masterclass in how not to do things, writes Andy Cowper

Three word slogans are very much a thing in our recent politics: from “taking back control” in the EU referendum, to “get Brexit done” in the 2019 general election. Now the covid-19 pandemic brings us “whatever it takes.” That is the theme running through the additional package of economic measures announced by the chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak in the wake of his budget, responding to a pandemic of fear that has joined the respiratory virus.

The spread of fear in the UK is unsurprising. The appalling communications over the past weekend about why the government shifted its position—from its initial, more laissez-faire, acceptance of herd immunity and limited recommendations on individual restrictions, to its current, more proscriptive, approach—have been a masterclass in how not to do things. 

Robert Peston, 10 Downing Street’s most favoured national journalist, received an exclusive leak previewing a four month period of quarantining people who are aged over 70. This came just two days after the first of the now daily press conferences with the Prime Minister and chief medical and scientific officers. The weekend media did not have a clear explanation for why the government was apparently going to change its strategy so significantly. It was not until Monday that updated modelling by scientists from Imperial College was released and highlighted as the source of this change of strategy

Two quotes spring to mind. One is attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, sir, I change my mind. And you?” The other is from the economist Paul Samuelson: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions.” 

Whether you prefer Keynes’s facts or Samuelson’s information, there was a reason for the strategy to change. We just got those reasons three days after Number 10 leaked Mr Peston the story of the new strategy. Already, however, the growing concern had been exacerbated by the actions of Health Secretary Matt Hancock and his team in writing an opinion-editorial for the Sunday Telegraph on the government’s covid-19 strategy—and publishing it behind the newspaper’s online paywall.

Once this piece was set free from the paywall, Hancock’s argument was unclear in several respects, the most obvious of which was his declaration that “we have a plan, based on the expertise of world-leading scientists. Herd immunity is not a part of it.” This came after the chief scientific officer had just two days previously described to national media how the government hoped that herd immunity would be created by the initial strategy that had been adopted

At the time of writing, some parts of the government are still briefing some of the media that more restrictions are imminent, while also briefing other parts that there is “zero chance” of additional restrictions in London. It is as if the right hand did not know what the further right hand was doing, isn’t it?

The irony of these incessantly inept communications is clanging, given chief adviser to PM Johnson Dominic Cummings’s admiration for “superforecasters.”

The First Rule Of Respiratory Disease Pandemic Club is that people are scared. Fear makes certainty attractive, and clear and coherent communications essential—particularly as the science of this pandemic is clearly not wholly certain, and not all the epidemiologists agree. Likewise, there are complicating factors that covid-19 can be asymptomatic for the first four days, and the unclear state of reinfection rates.

The government’s communications over covid-19 need to build and sustain trust, and their track record so far is deeply discouraging. This thoughtful piece by Robert Shrimsley from Financial Times summarises the key issues neatly.

As the barest of minimums, there are some obvious communications rules here for the government to remember.

Number 1. Remember that people are scared.

Number 2. If you have to change the policy, say why you’re doing so and publish the data that inform this change immediately.

Number 3. If you can’t get the basics of communications right, and end up having the evidence for your change of mind dragged out of you, people will lose confidence in you.

Number 4. If you make people lose confidence in you, the likelihood of compliance with the best advice will shrink, and you’ll get panic buying, refusal to social distance/self-isolate, etc, and the rest.

Oh, and it really doesn’t help the government’s case that PM Johnson was reported to have made a joke while on a conference call with engineering businesses whom he was lobbying about building more respirators to refer to the project as “Operation Last Gasp.”

Andy Cowper is a freelance journalist and editor of Health Policy Insight.

Competing interests: None declared.