Greater Manchester lockdown: Careless communication risks ruining decisive action

By Ian Morris, Partner, Newgate Manchester

If you want to hear a two-minute clip that illustrates the need to ‘know your stuff’ before embarking on a live broadcast interview, then go no further than this Matt Hancock interview on BBC Radio Manchester.

The Health Secretary was attempting to explain the new lockdown rules imposed at very short notice in Greater Manchester and other parts of northern England late last week, and was making efforts to explain whether a family from Greater Manchester could travel out of the impacted area to meet another household in their house or garden. If a Q&A existed at that point in time, Mr Hancock’s evasiveness suggests it certainly wasn’t sitting in front of him.

The interview was one contributory factor influencing the local reaction to the new restrictions.

At first, there was confusion. Can I still visit friends or family outside the affected areas? Can I still go to the pub or the gym this weekend? Will residents of Hale be forced to admit they live in Greater Manchester, not Cheshire?

As the detail of the rules became clearer, frustration. Why is it ok for me to get on a train, go into an office or a shopping centre surrounded by strangers but not to go for a cuppa at my mum’s? Why is it ok for a childminder to come into my home to look after a child, but not my brother or sister? Why do I have to get my head around another set of new rules to enforce in my bar or restaurant?

Some of this frustration tipped over into anger. Why do I have to uninvite guests from my wedding at effectively zero notice? Are they picking on the Muslim community, announcing this right at the start of Eid al-Adha? Why are they treating all these areas with a blanket approach including some which have very low rates of infection?

But despite all this, for most there was grudging acceptance. Acceptance that acting decisively to stamp on any potential outbreaks was the right thing to do, despite the many frustrations and sacrifices that would have to be made. 

Local leaders were in general supportive of the need to take measures, but critical of how it was handled. A statement issued jointly from the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the leaders of the city’s 10 boroughs suggested the lack of detail and the sudden nature of the announcement had caused “confusion and distress”.

Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer also supported the need for action but said that “announcing measures affecting potentially millions of people late at night on Twitter is a new low for the Government’s communications during this crisis”.

They are right. Of course, the Government needs to act decisively when new data gives it warning of a potential flare up, and taking decisions quickly inevitably means sacrifices have to be made around how carefully communications can be prepared.

But for Government-imposed restrictions to be effective, people need to faithfully follow them. For people to follow advice, they need to believe that the source of the advice is acting with both integrity and competence. Unfortunately, the effect of issuing confusing rules with less than three hours’ notice and a lack of immediate detail did little to instil confidence in the Government’s competence.

The risk is that confusion and frustration turn into contempt and disobedience – which given what is at stake, is a highly significant risk indeed. No one would argue against the need for decisive action in circumstances like these – but clearer communication could go a long way to ensuring decisive action has the desired effect.