By David Shaw
On Wednesday the 13th of May coronavirus lockdown restrictions were slightly eased in England. People living there can now drive anywhere in that country to get to a chosen place of exercise, can meet people from outside their households in parks, and can start playing tennis and golf again. They are also being encouraged to return to work where possible. Reflecting these changes, the Westminster government’s official slogan changed from “stay at home” to “stay alert.” In contrast, the other three parts of the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have kept the older slogan and only loosened exercise restrictions very slightly, permitting unlimited exercise but with no other change. However, the UK government seems keen to imply that all parts of the UK have changed approach, which is very problematic in terms of public health.
The rationale for the changes in England is that it is now safe to do so because the R (viral reproduction) number has fallen below 1, indicating that each infected person is now infecting fewer than one other person. This is despite the R number actually rising the week before the announcement, and the fact that the R number in England may not actually be much or indeed any lower than in other parts of the UK, given the margin of error in calculating it.
Boris Johnston’s government has also been criticised because the leaders of the three devolved administrations learned of the new slogan and planned changes not from him, but from Sunday newspapers on the day they were announced. Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Darkeford and Irene Foster all criticised the lack of consultation, not least because the changed message in England could lead to confusion about the rules elsewhere in the UK. At a press conference, Sturgeon specifically asked Johnson to ensure that the new message for England was not targeted at residents of Scotland.
However, at each of the daily press briefings in London, the fact that the changes only apply in England has not been specifically mentioned. When challenged to make the distinction clear in Parliament, Boris Johnson said that the changes were made in consultation with the devolved administrations – which is clearly not true – and that any ambiguities could be resolved by “good solid British common sense.” However, it is unclear how people can apply common sense when the rules are so ambiguous and are actually being misrepresented by the UK government.
This misrepresentation is systematic. To accompany the changes in England, Westminster paid for advertising on social media; it appeared on my news feed despite the fact that I live in Scotland. I was therefore advised that tennis courts, golf courses and basketball courts are reopening, and that I can play these sports with people from my household or a maximum of one other person from another household. But none of this is true in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland; if I did any of these things I would be breaking the law or at least risk a warning from the police for not following public health guidance. I would also be risking getting infected or infecting someone else. This advertising clearly says “UK Government” at the top and has the “stay alert” logo at the bottom, and does not state anywhere that it only applies in England. I was further advised that “You can meet a friend in the park but you must stay two metres apart.” But this is only true in England (this caveat was later added in the Facebook post accompanying the information picture itself; the official government guidance does concede it applies only to England, but public health messaging requires clarity of message in all advertising too.) And this misinformation is not limited to social media; every newspaper sold in England and Wales had wraparound “stay alert” ad on Thursday 14th may, despite that not being the slogan in Wales.
It should go without saying, but it is dangerous for the UK government to disseminate information that encourages people to take risks and break the law. The risk of getting infected in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was almost certainly increased simply because of the loosening of the guidelines in England, both because it could create confusion about the rules in the other parts of the UK, and because people living in England can misunderstand the rules; one man from Buckinghamshire who thought it was ok to drive to Wales for exercise was stopped by police in Snowdonia. But these risks are greatly compounded by Westminster’s transmission of misinformation to residents of the other parts of the UK. Despite widespread adherence to the rules of lockdown, some people are looking for any excuse to bend the rules. The risk of this in Scotland, Wales and NI will already be increased because of the relaxation in England, and jealousy of greater freedom there; producing “UK government” advertising that states citizens can do sports in public and meet friends outdoors will legitimise rule-breaking in the UK outside England. This is reckless and could cost lives.
Why is the UK government not taking these issues seriously? Sadly, the answer is likely to be political. Boris Johnson and his colleagues have been keen to imply that there is little divergence between the nations – the Scottish secretary even claimed “The differences between the U.K. government and the Scottish government are absolutely minuscule” – and admitting that these new messages apply “only in England” would weaken that Unionist message. In fact, the strong implication in much press coverage has been that Scotland is diverging from the UK approach. But in fact, it is England that is diverging from the unified UK approach of the other three nations. Essentially the U.K. government is spreading false public health information to three of the four UK nations (over 10 million people) in encouraging them to break lockdown rules and endanger others. So much for “good solid British common sense”.
Author: David Shaw
Affiliations: Care and Public Health Research Institute, Maastricht University; Institute for Biomedical Ethics, University of Basel
Competing interests: None declared