Calls for the "firm smack of government" show up No 10’s feeble and confused messaging

Why "the science" should not be blamed for U-turns and a woeful communications strategy.

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Huw Merriman voiced the disquiet of many fellow Tory backbenchers on 26 August when he called for the “firm smack of government” to be introduced into England’s Covid-19 policy. Merriman took to the airwaves after ministers drew back at the last minute from imposing the use of face coverings in the communal areas of secondary schools, opting instead to apply this only where local lockdowns are in place, and leaving head teachers elsewhere to somehow assess the risk and make their own decisions about requiring face mask use.

This was the latest in a succession of U-turns made by the government over the summer. Most were the result of external pressure, but the reversal over face coverings in schools was apparently achieved by Tory MPs themselves, many of whom find the idea anathema. It is not just the U-turns. As full lockdown – with its starkly simple message: “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives” – has been progressively eased, so the rules as to what is and is not permissible have ramified bewilderingly. In many instances they have given rise to absurdities, such as people being unable to have their parents visit, unless of course they were to employ them as cleaners. As someone with more than a passing interest in our management of the pandemic, even I have lost track of what is and is not permissible in terms of meeting up with how many people from how many households and in what kind of venue. I doubt there are many people who feel entirely clear on the rules.

It was this sense of drift and chaos that exercised Merriman. “The government needs to get a grip of our scientists. I’m sick and tired, and I think many people in the public are sick and tired – the science just changes,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Today. “People don’t know what the rules are any more. How can the science change from one day to the next?” But while Merriman has identified a real problem, his diagnosis – that it is the result of flip-flopping science – is entirely wrong.

Despite the large sums it has paid to consultancies for guidance on how to tailor its Covid-19 messaging, the government’s communications have been woeful ever since it decided to switch to the “Stay Alert” slogan in May. Fundamental to this is the UK’s failure to make an explicit distinction between personal safety and population-level infection control.

The discourse is about whether it is “safe” for children to return to school, “safe” for workers to return to their offices and so on. The “safety” is strongly implied to be that of the individuals concerned, yet that couldn’t be further from the truth, given that we are not attempting to achieve “zero Covid”. The opening or closing of schools or certain types of business; the prescriptions over inter-household contacts; whether it’s OK to get one’s nails gelled or go to the gym should be understood for what they are: blunt tools that cause varying degrees of disruption to normal social interactions. The more coronavirus spreads, the more interruptions are required to stop it getting out of hand, and vice versa when transmission falls.

Because at a political level such decisions seem like a numbers game, there are always choices that can be made. If cases rise during the autumn, one possible scientific response is to limit social interactions. Johnson has said he would shut pubs and restaurants rather than close schools again. But if political pressure caused him to change that stance, it wouldn’t be because the science had abruptly altered. The same is true with face coverings in schools. It is merely one tool for interrupting some chains of transmission – and not a strongly evidenced one at that. If enough irate Tory backbenchers kick up a fuss, it wouldn’t seem that important a thing to cling on to. There are always other options for exerting friction on the viral growth rate.

The ambiguity between personal safety and population-level management in government messaging is deliberate, I suspect, and reflects a belief that we are too individualistic a culture to be sufficiently motivated by ideas such as collective effort. We will only modify our behaviour if we feel threatened. One problem with this approach is what happens when the threat doesn’t feel real. This might be because a younger person (rationally) perceives their risk from contracting Covid-19 to be small. Or perhaps a middle-aged parent believes they have the virus, so the “threat” then is very different; it becomes about how to manage childcare when ill. In the absence of strong collectivism, judgements come down to individual risk-benefit equations. The youth sorely misses socialising and dancing: out to a party or rave they go. The unwell parent bundles the children in the car, and drives hundreds of miles to where family members can help out if needed.

What of Merriman’s remedy for the confusion and malaise: the “firm smack of government”? New Zealand illustrates what really counts. Rather than constantly fine-tuning the minutiae, its government has set out four levels of social disruption, the requirements of which are widely understood. Individual regions can be moved to different levels independent of the rest of the country, as has happened in Auckland recently. There is clarity, consistency and simplicity as to what is expected. And the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, models empathy and collectivism, frequently emphasising her “team of five million” working together to conquer Covid-19.

If there has been a moment for the “firm smack of government” in the UK’s handling of Covid-19 policy, it was when Dominic Cummings illustrated that individual risk-benefit assessment trumps collective endeavour. The impact reverberates to this day. It is not a genie that will be easily returned to its bottle. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and writes the New Statesman’s “Health Matters” column. His books include Chicken Unga Fever: Stories from the Medical Frontline (Salt)

This article appears in the 04 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn't working

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