Government guidance on how to prepare for the end of the Brexit transition period in December is likely to get lost among the major public-health campaign that is being run amid the coronavirus crisis, a group of MPs has warned.
The Public Accounts Committee said it is concerned the Cabinet Office will not be able to successfully deliver two simultaneous campaign messages to businesses and the public.
Since coronavirus broke out in the UK, the Cabinet Office has been running a major, cross-government communications campaign to inform people about the regulations they must follow to prevent the spread of the infection.
But as the UK prepares for the end of the Brexit transition period, slated for 31 December, the department must also work to ensure businesses and the public are prepared for a radical shift in the country’s relationship with the EU.
But in a report today, PAC said information campaigns run ahead of the UK’s exit from the EU on 31 October had had limited success.
The Get Ready for Brexit campaign, launched in September, was intended to ensure businesses were prepared to meet the regulatory requirements to operate if the UK left the bloc without a deal.
Despite spending £46m on the campaign over two months, the Cabinet Office “was unable to demonstrate that the campaign led to people being better prepared for the UK leaving the EU”, PAC said.
And it said there was a risk of history repeating itself, given that more recent communications campaigns had also faced criticism. Critics have called the government’s early coronavirus messaging “muddled”, saying it has failed to provide a “strong, clear message” about how they should act to curb the spread of Covid-19.
And more recently, PAC said, it has been criticised for a “lack of clarity” in its attempts to explain the easing of lockdown restrictions, including plans for some groups of pupils to return to school this week.
“At a time of a national public health crisis, clear communication is vitally important,” the MPs said.
The committee said the government should set out a plan, within the next month, for an “effective and timely communication campaign for the end of the Brexit transition period” on December 31st this year.
The plan should set out how it has learned from the failures of the Get Ready for Brexit campaign, it said.
As the end of the transition approaches, the MPs said the Cabinet Office faces additional challenges in getting its message across as it is “likely that the Covid-19 campaign will crowd out the Brexit transition campaign”.
Even if the message does get through, PAC said it was concerned that businesses, which have suffered economically with coronavirus restrictions in place, may not be able to act on both sets of messages.
PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “The government is taking the UK through not one but two incredible, unprecedented political and economic upheavals simultaneously, but it is business, the public and the public purse that will suffer if it gets it wrong.
“The government has shown it could not fully successfully deliver one such campaign, before the pandemic disaster hit – in that case with a lot of money spent on the overarching message but less success on the detail which changes behaviour.
“With the nation’s fortunes, livelihoods and even lives at stake, the government must quickly give us confidence that it has learned the lessons and understands the scale of the task of running two campaigns like this, each much more complex and longer term than either the coronavirus 'stay at home' or the original Brexit date messages.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign reached 99.8% of the UK population and increased public awareness of the action they needed to take to be ready to leave the EU on 31 January 2020. The transition period will finish at the end of December 2020 and we will similarly ensure people and businesses have the information they need to prepare in a timely way.
"The successful approach taken for the 'Get Ready for Brexit' campaign has been replicated for the coronavirus campaign, which similarly has shown high public awareness and impact so far. The Cabinet Office is confident that both campaigns can be delivered successfully to ensure citizens remain safe and informed and reduce uncertainty for businesses."