Government right to drop simplistic “Stay Home” message

By Dafydd Rees, Partner

“It is coming down from the mountain that is often more dangerous.” Boris Johnson’s remark during his televised address to the nation on Sunday night was an admission from the Prime Minister of the truth that it is much harder getting out of a crisis situation than it is to get into it in the first place.

The UK is at a pivotal moment in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Finding the right words and the right tone is critical and the stakes could not be higher.

I agree with the sentiment from Health Secretary Matt Hancock that communication has a “direct impact on the amount of cases we have and the therefore the amount of people who die.”

But communication by its very nature is both a constant activity and a dialogue. There is no magic wand which with one wave can build a national sense of solidarity. Instead it requires honesty, empathy, attention to detail combined with a readiness to change your mind when the facts and the evidence change.  

In my view, critics of the change in the emphasis from a “Stay Home” to a “Stay Alert” messaging by the Government may have a point regarding clarity and detail, but fail to appreciate the central point that this is the time to start the process of changing the nature of the public debate here in the UK. 

This is a disease for which no country has all the answers nor can science predict its future course with any certainty. There is currently no cure or vaccine. We face a situation which the former Bank of England Governor, Lord King terms “radical uncertainty.”  

Living with COVID-19

That’s why I believe that a more appropriate messaging strategy at this time would be to talk of how we at this difficult time can best learn to live with COVID-19 as a way of protecting ourselves and each other. There is a pressing need to overcome our very real fears and instil a sense of trust and responsibility. This is about managing an ongoing dilemma not solving a problem once and for ever.    

The most immediate problem is that the message of “Stay at Home” has worked too well and is preventing the public from understanding the reality of all the risks we face.  Moreover, the evidence from around the world suggests that, despite the criticism that the UK needs to be unified in its response to COVID-19,  a single, simple message for the whole UK no longer makes sense.

Communicating Complexity

The very real concern of a Second Wave of infection makes social distancing and a well organised testing and contact tracing system vital.

However, being transparent and honest with the public requires a more nuanced and phased approach than the single instruction to “Stay Home” taken during the initial lockdown. That is why our politicians need to address the real problems in children returning to school and commuters using public transport, especially in London.

I have felt for some time that the UK Broadcast media has failed to balance the very real medical emergency of COVID-19 with the unintended consequences on the health system and economic and business life more widely.

Mass unemployment is already a reality in the USA. Here in the UK, the Bank of England forecasts unemployment close to 1 in 10 of all workers within the next few months. 

During the six weeks of lockdown the slogan of Stay Home, Protect the NHS and Save Lives strategy has worked far more effectively than officials had anticipated. Only a fraction of the children of key workers expected to go to school have shown up for class.      

While the latest polling shows three in four of the UK public want the Government to prioritise lives over a focus on the economy, in France an Ifop poll showed the French public split almost evenly between the fear of catching the virus and the fear of the economic damage. Similar levels of concern about the impact of lockdown on the economy can be found in Germany, Sweden and the US.

Confronting our fears requires a change in the messaging. Research by the European University Institute also shows that here in the UK, public perception of infection rates in their own locality don’t reflect the reality. Polling by Decision Technology also demonstrates that our ability to conform and comply with lockdown restrictions are changing.

While the Daily News Conference by Government Ministers and Scientific experts helped provide a focus and a framework for the public and the media in the first days and weeks of lockdown, research by Adam Bull of Newgate Communications of the volume of coverage on Twitter indicates the law of diminishing returns applies.

Devolving power and decisions

While the UK media has questioned the way in which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are taking a different stance to that being adopted at Westminster, other European countries have shown that a local and decentralised approach is most effective. Germany has been praised for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic alongside Angela Merkel’s caution and crisis management skills. 

Germany’s federal system means that regional states have the freedom to pursue their own strategies. Restrictions have been lifted at differing speeds amid the recognition of regional differences.

In Spain, Madrid and Barcelona remain under restrictions while 11 other regions have allowed shops, gyms and hotels to open.

Honesty and Empathy 

Communicating complexity is never easy. I agree with the sentiment expressed by one quoted UK anonymous Government source that the British public will “forgive us for the mistakes made going in but won’t forgive us for mistakes getting out.”  

Boris Johnson was right in his televised address to time and again stress the conditional nature of his “Road-map” being just a guide of the way ahead away from the current lockdown restrictions.

This is a global Pandemic which has still to run its course. Its impact on different parts of the world has also yet to be understood. This is an unpredictable virus which doesn’t follow the same rules as influenza.

A second wave of infection is a real concern and would have a serious impact on public and market confidence. An upsurge in infections in Germany and in South Korea amply demonstrate the danger.

Last week some parts of Germany opened shops and schools, but infection rates are already above stable and safe levels. Infections in nightclubs in South Korea have also shown that living with COVID-19 means expecting the unexpected. In China, the first new coronavirus cases in Wuhan has been reported since the decision to end the lockdown there.

That’s why I think lockdown should be viewed as a process and not as a single leap. 

According to Ipsos Mori polling, two out of three of the British public now think the UK Government acted too late to deal with COVID-19. Wrong decisions may have been taken and warnings not acted upon but issues around testing strategy, the availability of protective equipment and the COVID-19 death toll in UK care homes are, in my mind, for a future date and a future reckoning. 

As the former US President, George W Bush argued in his recent video message “Call to Unite” now is the time for hope, empathy and honesty for “we rise or fall together.”

The author has recovered from Covid-19