Andy Cowper: Slippery language and defensive politics try to hide the real problems

One golden rule of a crisis of the scale of the covid-19 pandemic must be that leaders’ communications need to be exceptionally candid and clear and that they need to induce confidence. What we’ve seen from the government over recent weeks has been a striking failure on those counts.

Prime minister Boris Johnson gave a speech from outside 10 Downing Street when he returned to work after his hospitalisation with covid-19. Normally, the arrival of the lectern is a harbinger of a significant event—the announcement of a PM arriving, departing, or calling a general election. There was no such significance this time. 

The prime minister had nothing of substance to say, and he said it badly. His offbeat and unfocused delivery style, full of misplaced emphases and irrelevant metaphors, may have been a unique selling point in the politician-as-clown schtick figure that Johnson has played so successfully—all the way to the top job. As prime minister, it seems wildly inappropriate to the gravity of a situation in which patients and health and care staff are losing their lives in significant numbers.

The “invisible mugger” metaphor

Two aspects of PM Johnson’s speech stood out: neither positively. He asserted that “I know that there will be many people looking now at our apparent success”. This rhetorical trick is straight out of the Donald Trump playbook, when a statement about unidentified considering something is followed by an evidence-free assertion that demonstrates what a great job the speaker is doing.

It is also not evident to what “apparent success” Mr Johnson was referring. The UK’s rate of confirmed covid-19 deaths per million of population is the fifth worst, with countries where the pandemic started earlier above the UK’s position. The environment secretary acknowledged that it “may well be” that the UK turns out to have Europe’s highest covid-19 fatality rate.

The PM then, in a spectacularly ill-chosen and confusing analogy, likened the virus to an “invisible mugger”, saying that “if this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger (which I can tell you from personal experience it is), then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.” Perhaps Johnson is trying to boost his self-image as a hale fellow, taken down by random malice. If that is the case, he might want to reflect back on his boast about shaking hands at a hospital when the scientific advice on stopping covid-19 transmission was well known.

“Following the science” and other linguistic gymnastics

Another phrase much-beloved of ministers is that they are “following the science.” As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this is being used far more as a blame-deflecting tactic than as an acceptance of the disagreements, hypotheses, uncertainties, and traditions of rigorous questioning of actual science. This is political science, in other words, as opposed to scientific science.

There is no scientific science behind the sure-to-be-missed Government target of 100,000 covid-19 diagnostic tests a day by the end of April, as chief medical officer Chris Whitty told a parliamentary select committee. So how has the inventor of this “nice round number,” health secretary Matt Hancock, been addressing this? By using political language, surprisingly enough.

Hancock has been trying to pivot from discussing “diagnostic tests” and referring only to “the capacity for tests”, until journalists spotted and challenged him on that trick. He also tried a new formulation at the last press briefing, of moving to the line “guided by the science”. This substitution of linguistic gymnastics for actual achievement is evidently another highly infectious disease: first secretary to the treasury Dominic Raab told this week’s prime minister’s questions that “we’re on track to make huge progress.”

Hancock’s latest wheeze

One of Hancock’s latest wheezes has been to accept a £100 bet from the tabloid-style broadcaster Nick Ferrari that his 100,000 tests target will be met, while his communications style spans the entire range from the glib to the facile and from the gimcrack to the tawdry. 

There was his announcement of the  “Care” badge, to raise the status and respect for social care staff (yes, the badge that care workers had to pay for, and which was someone else’s year-old idea). Then there was his reply to questions about supply shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) at Parliament’s Health Select Committee that “I would love to be able to wave a magic wand and have PPE fall from the sky in large quantities and be able to answer your question about when shortages will be resolved.” This is a breathtakingly casual analogy and tone from the health secretary, when front line staff have died from covid-19 infections that they probably didn’t pick up at home.

No more helpful was his approach, when questioned at the daily press briefings about social care covid-19 deaths, which is probably the biggest issue in health and social care today, and the Panorama revelations around PPE. Hancock’s line was to dispute the fairness of repeated questions on covid-19 infections in care homes, and to attack the editorial balance of the Panorama programme. Once again, the Trump populist playbook is on show: the BBC is the “fake news media”, we are to believe. This is a disastrous look.

The issue of PPE supply has not gone away. It was given recent prominence by the publication of a new follow-up survey from the Royal College of Physicians, which found that general access to PPE has worsened. On the same day, BBC broadcast a Panorama programme asking “Has the government failed the NHS?” The programme outlined how the government’s pandemic stockpile contained no gowns, visors, swabs or body bags when covid-19 reached the UK. It also reported that the government did not act on a warning in June 2019 from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (the expert committee that advises the government on pandemics) that recommended the purchase of gowns. 

PPE availability issues were also followed up on BBC Newsnight, and evidence is emerging that the global PPE market is seeing “order hijacking” and price gouging. The meta-irony of the right-wing Daily Mail buying up a million pounds worth of PPE to give to the NHS seems to have been lost on Mr Hancock, who merrily tweeted that it was “a brilliant initiative … in our national effort to tackle Coronavirus”.

We have heard endless military metaphors in the covid-19 pandemic crisis. The usefulness of that analogy is debatable, yet we should worry that the grotesque nature of sending unarmed soldiers into battle does not seem to cross ministers’ minds. Let alone perturb them.

And it really isn’t the Daily Mail’s job to buy PPE for the NHS. The fact that a strongly Tory newspaper feels the need to intervene in the supply market in this way (unintendedly reducing supply and raising prices) ought to give Mr Hancock pause for thought, but it’s not very evident that he has any.


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

Competing interests: None declared.