Andy Cowper: How not to unpick a lockdown

Readers of The BMJ may be familiar with the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s almost an Inverse Competence Law, which proposes a cognitive bias in which people who are not good at a task overestimate their ability. 

This effect has been to the forefront of many people’s minds as they observe the UK government’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic. In particular, the events of the past ten days, with the prime minister’s launch of a routemap to ease out of the “lockdown,” have displayed a “greatest hits” of this administration’s deficiencies.

Communication has been, as I have previously written for these pages, central to the Government’s self-inflicted problems. 

This is powerfully ironic, as members of the Government seem to think they are actually very good at it. One briefed the Financial Times that “our comms have been some of the best in Europe.” The fact that this individual said these words out loud in the real world, to a journalist, is almost impressive. If there were a metric scale of Dunning-Kruger-ness, this would clearly have broken it.

Prime minister Boris Johnson gave a pre-recorded speech introducing the lockdown changes: this in itself was interesting, as it removed the opportunity for live questions from the media that have been standard parts of the daily televised covid-19 Downing Street briefings. Questions from the public have recently been added to these events. A cynic might say this was a populist move by Johnson’s people’s Government” to reduce media scrutiny: in fact, many of the public’s questions have been better than some national journalists have managed.

The daily briefings themselves have indulged the presentational style of the “minister of the day.” Health secretary Matt Hancock clearly thinks he’s rather good at them, and has developed a tendency to comment on and review the questions which in no way looks like an inept and obvious effort to buy thinking time. Other ministers have taken to presenting the briefing with a curious and unfamiliar tone, which comes across as over-emotional to the point of wheedling. Perhaps these ministers are thinking ahead to the inevitable public inquiry that will follow, and pre-mourning their time in office before it is even over.

Johnson’s pre-recorded speech was long on military metaphors (but at least spared us the covid-19 infection as “invisible mugger” imagery of his bizarre statement when returning to work at Downing Street). 

A few days earlier, the Government had announced new slogans. Previously, the nation had been urged to “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives”, which was clear and comprehensible, at least.

The re-write to prepare us for the first easing of lockdown means that now we are urged to “Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives.” The problem is that “stay alert” doesn’t really mean anything. It evidently doesn’t help people to “control the virus” in the absence of adequate information, infrastructure and PPE for safe social distancing at work or on public transport; let alone having a testing, tracking and tracing system in place. Perhaps we’ll end up mixing and matching phrases: “Stay NHS. Protect the virus. Control home.” makes about as much sense as the government’s current re-write.

These revised slogans had been widely mocked since their launch, and Johnson’s efforts to make them more meaningful were not really a success. The launch of a graphic to demonstrate the new five-level Covid Alert System (which will trigger the stages of lockdown relaxation) was amusingly close in style to the ‘Peri-Peri’-ometer hotness scale used by the fast food chain Nandos. It’s good to see that someone, somewhere in Government communications has a spicy sense of humour.

Much emphasis has been made in the following media briefings of the “common sense” approach that will inform the un-lockdown: another populist touch from the UK’s most populist Government in living memory. Yet all is not well in Johnson’s “people’s Government“: leaks from the Cabinet to the Daily Telegraph’s political editor revealed anger among Cabinet ministers at being excluded from decision-making on key covid-19 issues: that has been relegated to the “Quad” of PM, Chancellor, Health Secretary, and Michael Gove.

The question of whether the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Officer were involved in the changing of these covid-19 communications messages was rather half-heartedly answered, with both the scientists demurring from being comms experts and the Government asserting that the two were always fully involved in decisions about the science. It will be interesting to see how well that line, along with so very many other lines, holds up over time and with greater scrutiny and post-event candour.

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

Competing interests: None declared.