The first period of the Government’s public response to the Coronavirus saw Boris Johnson, the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer undertake their original joint press conference. That was on March 3rd.
At that stage, the total number of deaths from the virus in Italy was 107, and the country had only just made its decision to close schools. The threat seemed more remote to very many people here in Britain than it does now.
The media gave the event, as well as successive similar conferences, a very fair wind. This stretched into the second period, which started until last Thursday. During it, the Chief Scientific Officer said that the virus will spread widely. He suggested that this is unstoppable and in one sense desirable – because it will eventually introduce herd immunity into the population.
By now, the WHO had declared the Coronavirus a pandemic, Italy had undergone over a thousand deaths and extended its quarantine nationwide, and the number of registered cases here had burst the hundred barrier.
This darkening background intensified debate between what Rob Colvile calls the delayers, who support the Government’s strategy (or at least are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt) and the containers, who do not (and are not). This is to be expected. In a liberal democracy with social media amidst an unparalleled crisis, at least in modern times, it is inevitable and in many ways healthy, if that is exactly the right word.
The third period came late last week and this weekend. It saw selected journalists get privileged information – that’s to say, material that had not been publicly announced.
This included news from Robert Peston on Saturday evening that “people over 70 will be instructed by the government to stay in strict isolation at home or in care homes for four months”. Today saw Matt Hancock and Patrick Vallance pull in different directions over herd immunity. Hancock wrote that it isn’t the Government’s “aim”. The Chief Scientific Officer said that millions will need to contract the virus in order to achieve it.
By yesterday morning, our Coronovirus Count had recorded the number of cases in Britain breaching the thousand barrier, with 21 deaths, up from ten.
Dividing recent events into periods in this way is somewhat artificial, but readers will see the point of it. Peston and Tim Shipman, who yesterday tweeted a graph illustrating the Government’s fear of a second wave of the virus, are very good journalists. And writing stories from sources is what journalists do. We would normally have no reservation about the practice: after all, what would ConHome have done without it before the reshuffle?
But an anxious public will obviously be confused if unconfirmed reports of major political decisions reach the light of day in this way.
Nor were Hancock and Vallance contradicting each other, strictly speaking. It would not be exact to describe herd immunity a Government policy aim – in other words, part of its strategy for action – but it would not be inaccurate to label it a Government policy intention: an acceptance at the very least that the bulk of the population cannot be insulated from the spread of the virus.
And – again, obviously – it is bewildering if the Chief Scientific Officer is leaning in one direction on Sky News and the Health Secretary is saying another in the Sunday Telegraph (behind a paywall, some complained).
As we write, the Government had duly bowed to the inevitable, and conceded daily press conferences from tomorrow. ConHome understands that some Ministers at least feel “bounced into doing these now”, and that they have two main reasons for having reservations about the practice.
One is that if the conferences are to have the same senior cast each day, they will be a big call on the resource of the Chief Scientific Adviser and Chief Medical Officer at a time when both are urgently needed elsewhere.
If the cast changes, however, that risks different people turning up with different messages.
The other reason is a worry about non-political actors alarming the public with non-political language – such as “herd instinct”.
None the less, the decision is the right one. These conferences would have happened at some point in the near future in any event. Holding them daily was simply a matter of time. They will bring order and shape to Government communication of its message, or should do – especially now that Labour has apparently broken ranks. As for experts using technical terms, our judgement is that most voters are grown-up enough to deal with it.
However, daily press conferences will not be enough on their own . The Government need to do the following communications-wise during the coming weeks, as the shutdown accelerates in order to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.
- Launch a publication information campaign which aims to explain who should self-isolated and social distance, in what manner and for how long. This will need to be continuously updated.
- (And which will spill over into guidance for employers.)
- Include detailed advice about what older people should do and how others can best help them.
- Set out clearly how businesses and workers adversely impacted by the virus can apply for government assistance.
- Drop its boycott of Today, Newsnight and other programmes (which in any event has been declining).
- Use its top team of Ministers to help communicate its message. A lot will be asked not only of in particular of Hancock and his departmental ministers but of Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove.
- Keep putting up third parties such as Vallance and Chris Whitty. We don’t seem to have seen much yet of Simon Stevens, the NHS Chief Executive, or of Duncan Selbie, the head of Public Health England.
- Find a common basis on which to brief the weekend papers. The press conferences can’t run seven days a week and a potential news gap thus appears at weekends.
Ministers can’t reasonably be expected to have a monopoly on the flow of information in a free society. Leaks like this one to the Times on Saturday or this in today’s Guardian are par for the course – and there will be more.
Finally, it will be claimed that Government communication is trivial but Government action serious. This misses the point that in wartime conditions – and in those that are like wartime – communication is action. In a way that it simply isn’t when normal circumstances apply.