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Coronavirus and Communication. How to keep the public health messaging simple.

By Dafydd Rees
09 September 2020

By Daffyd Rees, Leadership Communications

Implicit in today’s announcement from the Prime Minister is a recognition that the official public health messaging on how to stop the spread of COVID-19 is not having the desired impact either on our individual or our collective behaviours.  

The Government knows that now is the time to act. The average number of infections being reported has risen to over 2,000 a day, for the fourth day running. The official message is now to be “wash your hands, cover your face and make space.” 

Social gatherings of more than six people are to be banned in England from next week. 

The county borough of Caerphilly in Wales is in lockdown until at least next week. In the North West of England and Western Scotland the authorities are already instructing residents to restrict their daily contacts with others.  

Boris Johnson just has admitted that the inevitable outcome of these individual measures has been mass confusion over the most responsible way to behave. I’m concerned that different rules for different places have also left the public disillusioned. 

The Government is set to launch a new advertising blitz on COVID-19. I would advise them to focus primarily on reaching and educating the young. As the Chief Medical Officer has just revealed positive tests in the 17-21 year old age bracket has surged since Mid-August.  

Walking around a crowded Liverpool City Centre this weekend, I witnessed hundreds of teenagers ignoring any kind of social-distancing measures. Data for the week to the 4th September shows the City’s infection rate has spiralled. Hundreds of school pupils have already been told they have to  self-isolate.    

So how do you build a culture of compliance across the generations and the entire geography of the UK? The answer, in my view, is through a simplicity of message and a healthy dollop of common sense.  

I believe that the three C’s public health message from the World Health Organisation has shown itself to be a particularly effective set of guiding principles for everyday situations.  

The WHO’s three C’s message is to avoid closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings.  

I wish it was being shared and used more widely as a practical way to assess the risk we pose to ourselves and to others.   

This simple three C’s message is said to have successfully influenced attitudes in Japan where, despite a quarter of the population being over 65 years of age, the number of deaths and serious cases has not been as high as once feared. 

Of course, there are other important elements to communicating with the public how to halt the spread of the virus. They include good ventilation and encouraging a culture where wearing masks becomes commonplace. 

In the end, COVID-19 has to viewed as a matter of personal responsibility. Enforcement will not be effective without a wider acceptance and understanding of the behaviours needed to beat this pandemic once and for all.