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The government’s communications need to reflect the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis

Covid-19 has forced a rapid change of gear in the government, but bad habits still need to be cut out

Covid-19 has forced a rapid change of gear in the government – from the electioneering that characterised its first four months to round-the-clock crisis management. But bad habits still need to be cut out, argues Jill Rutter

Peter Foster, of the Telegraph, has argued that the government’s communications effort around coronavirus would be a “case study in how not to manage crisis communications”. Is that fair?

The government is getting some things right on its communications

Two positives: we seem finally to have settled into a decent “battle rhythm” of communication with the daily televised press conferences. And the government has called off its much-criticised boycott of major BBC programme, allowing Today listeners to hear from its ministers. Those are both advances, though in both cases it took too long to get there.

It is also welcome that the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser have been made available to answer detailed questions about the assumptions underlying the government strategy – and to give out medical advice. This, as former Defra director of communications Steve Morris noted on the IfG podcast last week, is standard operating practice in health emergencies, when experts have more public credibility and authority than politicians. 

The problem with this is that public health messages are quite difficult to give. They focus on “population” health, but people care about health as individuals – and that is the way healthcare is organised. The government has said that it was never its strategy to build up “herd immunity”, but if so, it was bad messaging to have given the impression that it was part of the plan at all – it made the government sound callous.

Despite improvements the government's coronavirus messages are still muddled and incomplete

After the few positives, the balance starts to look less good. It is one thing to admit uncertainty – everyone can appreciate that the government is flying a bit blind and reacting at pace to a developing crisis. But on three fronts there are reasons to be critical.

First, there is continued confusion about the detail behind the government’s approach. It is fine to announce measures – but people need to know precisely what this means for their individual circumstances. At the very least, they need to know when that detail will become clear enough to allow them to prepare and decide when to act. But there have been too many unfilled gaps.

Second, the government is guilty of mixed messaging. People want an excuse to ignore unwelcome messages. So telling the population not to go to restaurants or cafes, but refusing to shut them down, allows people to rationalise that the government does not really mean what it is saying: it applies to others, not me. Hand me a skinny flat white please.

Third, the prime minister needs to be across the key details – or leave the field to others. And he needs to show that he is absolutely aware of the gravity of the situation. The impression at Thursday’s press conference was of a PM becoming bored – and that helps no one to think he up to leading the country through a long and very difficult haul. A sweeping assertion that the coronavirus would be "sent packing" within 12 weeks hardly helps, and when the prime minister has to be contradicted by his experts minutes later it only undermines his claim to authority.

No.10 needs to realise that this is not a time for their usual media management tricks

At least these problems were transparent and on the record. But No.10 has continued to indulge in its passion for behind the scenes briefing – leaking out potential future measures only for them to be denied on the record. This is not a way of giving early warnings of measures to come; it just adds to the confusion and anxiety. 

Some journalists are already refusing to play the anonymity game. Everyone in No.10 needs to realise that the nation is being forced to trust them to manage us through this crisis. This is the time to repay that trust by sparing us the usual political tricks.

It is easy to say that Johnson should just hand this all over to some combination of his experts, the health secretary and the chancellor. But that would be akin to admitting that he is just not up to the job of being prime minister. He wanted to be the PM who "got Brexit done" and "levelled up" the country – but in history he will go down as the coronavirus prime minister. It is up to him to communicate how he intends to lead the country at this time.

Number 10
Institute for Government

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