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Why local lockdowns need more than just a better media strategy

The government should not rely on others to clarify and deliver its own messaging.

By Stephen Bush

Late last night, as fresh cases of the novel coronavirus spiked in the Greater Manchester region, the government announced new local lockdown measures. Meetings between households have been banned across Greater Manchester, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendle, Rossendale, Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees. Pubs, restaurants, cafés and so on are still open, but only people from the same household can attend together.

The announcement – and the initial confusion over how it was briefed to both national and local press – has the government’s media strategy under fire because of muddled messaging.

That the government still lacks a proper strategy for community or local media – a problem that was evident back at the start of this crisis, when the pressures of the coronavirus almost caused the Jewish Chronicle to close – is a big barrier to getting out the government’s messages about local lockdowns out. But the government is also failing to use the tools it controls directly.

The government regularly clears a slot with major broadcasters, and that is a fantastic strategy for reaching a decent-sized chunk of the country. But growing numbers of people don’t watch live television, and most people get their news in dribs and drabs on music radio. There has never been an effective strategy for communicating via music radio – or really any plan for how you make sure that casual followers of the news are being given the information they need.

Because the government wanted us all to return to “normal”, there was never a serious attempt to encourage people to make watching the news a regular part of their day.

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But those problems are only partially a failure of government communications. What’s more troubling is that they represent a failure of state capacity and of the government’s general operational competence. 

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Local authorities have borne the heaviest share of the cuts to public spending since 2010, but their smooth functioning is a vital part of communicating and enforcing any local lockdown. 

The reality is, of course, that this latest lockdown can’t be enforced – it requires the public to do it themselves, which means the government needs to be communicating with all of its citizens, and not just those of us in the eccentric minority who follow the news closely and are comfortable with the bureaucratic language of government communications. 

The government does have plenty of levers it can and should be able to pull to tell people in different parts of the United Kingdom about changes to lockdown regulations. The Gov.UK Notify service allows the government, local authorities and other parts of the state to send messages to mobile phone users throughout the United Kingdom. Where’s the message containing the relevant guidelines in simple and easy to understand English, with links to translations? Getting that message out to people in the relevant local authorities is far more important than whether or not national, local or community media is getting briefed in a timely fashion.

The major advantage that states buy themselves with lockdown is the time to build state capacity: to improve their ability to communicate and work with local government, to sharpen up their ability to communicate with the public, to work with big tech and the BBC on how government would be able to swiftly and legibly communicate with the people of the United Kingdom, with its four devolved regions and complex media market. To be able to test, trace, and crucially, isolate new cases. We still have no serious mechanism to quarantine new cases, other than hope, and we still haven’t got the financial support in place to guarantee that everyone who needs to self-isolate will do so.

Instead, we used lockdown to launch a drive to reform the Civil Service and to prepare for a hard Brexit at the end of the year – both projects which, whatever you think of them, could surely have waited until December 2021. A hard rain is coming? Very probably. But it is not the one the government has been preparing for.