The government is facing a barrage of criticism for failing to provide citizens with a “strong, clear message” about how they should act to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Politicians and commentators have said the government’s communications about its response to the novel coronavirus, and how to comply with those measures, have been muddled and that the government has not made sufficient use of social media and other tools to communicate with the public.
Jill Rutter, senior fellow for the Institute for Government, said there had been “too many unfilled gaps” in the information provided to the public about how to follow social distancing protocols and other measures the government has implemented.
“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,” she wrote in a blog post for the IfG.
And she said the government had been “guilty of mixed messaging”. Until last Friday, the government had been advising people not to go to restaurants, cafes or pubs, but had allowed them to remain open – which Rutter said “allows people to rationalise that the government does not really mean what it is saying: it applies to others, not me”.
Rutter said the government’s approach had meant understanding of its strategy – such as whether promoting herd immunity to the virus was a core objective of the plan – had become “muddled”.
In the initial stages of the coronavirus response, it was widely reported that the government intended to create “herd immunity” in the UK population by allowing the virus to spread, albeit at a somewhat controlled pace. The message appears to been based largely on anonymous briefings, as well as chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s observation that efforts to “broaden and flatten” the peak of the outbreak would mean “more people will get immunity to this and that in itself becomes a protective part of this process”.
Rutter said: “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.”
Alastair Campbell, No.10 communications director under the New Labour government, said Boris Johnson had contributed to the confusion around the government’s strategy by giving inconsistent statements, including the assertion that the UK “can send [the virus] packing in twelve weeks”.
Campbell said on his blog that the “boast was foolhardy, and not supported by anything else being said”. He said the prime minister needed to secure the confidence of the public by giving clear, honest updates and by being seen to “decide, execute but also narrate a strategy”.
No.10 began holding daily press briefings on its coronavirus response last week, often fronted by the prime minister, after many commentators had called for them to be implemented.
However, announcements – including one today about the government taking control of rail franchises – are routinely being made outside the press conferences, while anonymous briefings have been made to the press about a potential escalation of controls on people’s movements and a potential “lockdown” of London.
Yvette Cooper, chair of parliament’s Home Affairs Committee and a former shadow home secretary, said the government had been too slow to begin running adverts on social media about social distancing measures. Without a large-scale social media campaign, she said, “is it any wonder that the messages aren’t getting through?”
Facebook adverts posted by No.10 over the weekend included instructions to stay at home where possible and to stay two metres away from other people in shops and other public spaces – but before that point, government social media campaigns had focused on the need for good hygiene.
“In a national emergency when lives depend on it the prime minister needs to ensure that strong, clear messages reach everyone on what they MUST NOW DO given the sheer gravity of what we face because we have a collective responsibility to save lives,” Cooper said.
She added: “Of course this is all moving really fast – but that is exactly why we need messages and information right now on the social measures we are all supposed to be taking urgently to save thousands and thousands of lives.”
I watched the Prime Minister’s press conference in despair. In a public health emergency communication and information saves lives. Yet time & again the Government keeps failing to push out a strong clear message to everyone. For all our sakes they urgently need to get a grip.
— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) March 22, 2020
The comments came as Johnson said he was prepared to order a UK-wide lockdown unless people start following strict measures designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
He issued the warning after a weekend in which crowds continued to flock to parks and beaches across the country, despite health officials urging people to stay indoors.
It came after Johnson ordered the closure of pubs, clubs, cafes, cinemas, theatres, gyms and leisure centres in an attempt to discourage large gatherings.
The prime minister said yesterday that a decision on introducing a full lockdown – effectively banning people from leaving their homes unless absolutely essential – would be taken "in the next 24 hours" if the rules continued to be broken.
Speaking as the coronavirus death toll in the UK rose to 281, the PM said having access to open spaces was "crucial for health and mental and physical wellbeing" during the crisis.
But he urged: "You have to stay two metres apart; you have to follow the social distancing advice. And even if you think you are personally invulnerable, there are plenty of people you can infect and whose lives will then be put at risk.
"And I say this now – on Sunday evening – take this advice seriously, follow it, because it is absolutely crucial.
"And as I have said throughout this process we will keep the implementation of these measures under constant review and, yes of course, we will bring forward further measures if we think that is necessary."
Asked what those might be, the PM said: "I don’t think you need to use your imagination very much to see where we might have to go, and we will think about this very very actively in the next 24 hours.
“We need to think about the kind of measures we’ve seen elsewhere – other countries that have been forced to bring in restrictions on people’s movements altogether."
Meanwhile, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said the government would now try to "shield" 1.5 million high-risk people from the disease.
The government will write to each of them urging them to remain indoors at all times, with the army even being called in to help deliver the essential supplies.
The Cabinet Office has been approached for a comment.