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Monday, April 19, 2021

‘Mixed messages’: UK government’s strategy fuels fears of rule

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First people were meant to stay at home to save lives, and then government sources raised the prospect of picnics with pals and sunbathing in the park just before a sunny bank holiday weekend.

Boris Johnson told the nation that scientists thought face masks might help stop the spread of the disease, but no change was made to the government advice that they were not needed outside medical and care settings.

Meanwhile, other reports suggested schools could be allowed back on 11 May (now impossible), that the furlough scheme could be abruptly wound down (causing anxiety for millions of workers) and that over-70s could be asked to stay at home for longer than the rest of society, potentially more than a year (provoking a backlash).

The catalogue of confusing messaging emanating from Downing Street and its ministers does not stop there – with even some supporters of the government beginning to question whether No 10 is maintaining enough discipline to give the public a clear message on how to stay safe.

“I don’t know what’s going on with the comms team but it’s obviously not the slick operation we’re told they’re supposed to be,” says a former Tory adviser who has worked for Johnson.

No 10 was quick to engage in a “dampening down” exercise on Thursday, insisting that lockdown measures would only be eased gradually and claiming that newspapers had “overegged” the idea that Sunday’s slight relaxing of the rules amounted to jubilant liberation.

But the damage had to some extent already been down, with fury among leaders of the devolved administrations about the “mixed messages” and warnings from scientists that bungled communications would lead people to gradually break the rules, thinking they no longer needed to abide by physical distancing so strictly.

When Johnson unveiled his slogan of “Stay home, Protect the NHS, Save lives” on 20 March, the message was meant to be clear. Devised by the campaign-winning brains behind “Get Brexit Done” and “Take Back Control”, it was a signal that the prime minister was serious about a lockdown after weeks of insisting that only handwashing was necessary to combat coronavirus.

At first it seemed to be working, emblazoned across three physically distanced podiums every day for Downing Street’s press conference. Additional hard-hitting social media adverts stressed that “people will die” if the advice was not followed.

And the figures showed that people were indeed staying at home for the most part, with traffic and public transport usage down hugely for weeks.

However, the purity of the message began to fray as cabinet splits emerged on how to begin to ease the lockdown, and the pace it should be done. While Johnson was recovering from coronavirus in hospital and then at his Chequers country retreat, the first rumblings started to appear in the media from anonymous ministers pressing for schools to be reopened, less than three weeks after the lockdown was first imposed.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, and Liz Truss, the trade secretary, have emerged as the most hawkish about a swift end to restrictions because of worries about the economy and its wider public health impacts on mental health, domestic violence and deaths from other missed illnesses.

This reflects the wider mood of the party, according to one Conservative MP. “I think it’s an incredibly dangerous moment for No 10, because of the risk of getting it wrong. There is some real worry about this in party, about not having a decision and a clear message. We will fight for anything but this is not the way to do it. And there is widespread concern among backbenchers that without an end to the lockdown soon we’ll destroy the economy further and not really save any extra lives,” he says.

Tory insiders say the tensions inside the cabinet and wider party have led to a battle over the right strategy, and hence some of the confusion.

Alastair Campbell, the former director of communications in Downing Street under Tony Blair, who has been a consistent critic of the government’s messaging, said: “I just think they are completely out of their depth and because most of the press is so slavish it makes them totally complacent.

“They just don’t think things through. I’m afraid I think it’s all of a pattern. The reason all this matters is that at some stage they are going to have to reset their strategy in a pretty big way and how they communicate with the public… they’re not going to be able to do that until they admit they have made a lot of mistakes.”

He added: “All they need to do is say these are the facts, these are the problems and this is how we will deal with them. They’ve turned everything into: ‘We’re right, everybody’s wrong, aren’t we doing well?’”

Front pages on Thursday declare the end of the lockdown.

Front pages on Thursday declare the end of the lockdown. Photograph: Supplied

Criticism of the government’s approach is also coming from members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), with scientists increasingly frustrated about information being given out piecemeal in political briefings, rather than communicated factually at the right time.

“It’s really unhelpful to have bits and pieces of information leaked,” one Sage adviser said. “They are going to have to undo, now, a lot of damage. The government needs to come out before Sunday. The sooner there is some damage limitation, and that’s what we’re talking about, the better.

“It’s incredibly damaging. If people are primed to look at things in a certain way, it will shape how they receive the information. So on Sunday they will be looking for the green lights and they won’t notice the red lights. It’s a really powerful way of influencing people.

“We’re looking at a three-day sunny bank holiday weekend, and sections of society may take this as ‘we’ll do what we want’ because it’s all changing Sunday anyway. Once the lid is taken off and people break some rules, they will be much more likely to carry on breaking them.”

The scientist stressed that there was an urgent need for more focus on social distancing, hand hygiene, the use of tissues, and the nose, mouth and eyes messaging again. “This is an example of the dangers of trailing, rather than getting the whole message all in one go,” they added.

Speaking in a personal capacity, John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex, expressed similar concerns. He is a member of an expert sub-group – the Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on Behaviour (SPI-B) – that feeds in to Sage.

“The rightwing media’s language and premature celebration of the supposed end of lockdown is dangerous and irresponsible framing of what might be about to happen,” he said, warning that the messaging was at odds with the continued need to maintain the handwashing and physical distancing that will still be needed.

“These headlines risk creating a normative climate where people think that we can all go straight back to the old ‘normal’,” he said.

This article was amended on 8 May 2020. An earlier version mistakenly described John Drury as belonging to Sage, instead of to the expert group SPI-B.

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