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25 March 2020

The public has a lot of questions about coronavirus. Here’s how they could be answered

People are frightened of asking "silly" questions - but the answers are important and save lives.

By Stephen Bush

I’ve been thinking a lot about people who don’t follow the news very closely in normal times. People who rarely vote, if at all.  Whose main news sources are the newsbreaks on Magic FM or Absolute Radio or BBC Radio 2. Are they being given the guidance they need to help combat Covid-19? 

My strong sense is “No”: partly driven by the large numbers of people I knew vaguely as a child who are popping up on Facebook and in my WhatsApp asking me questions about things they haven’t understood about the government’s advice or been able to ask. Most of these questions have been prefaced by someone saying “I’m probably being stupid, but…”

Some of these are essential questions: several people thought until recently that the two metres apart rule applied only when you were inside, and not for example, at open-air markets, because of earlier advice about why sporting events weren’t being cancelled. There is no such thing as a stupid question at any time, but particularly in a public health crisis – that’s why the Thatcher government’s famous HIV/AIDS campaigning, which was well ahead of most other governments, warned people not to “Die of ignorance”.

One of those questions was asked today at the latest government press conference by Tom Newton Dunn at the Sun: can couples who are not living together meet-up? To which the answer was, essentially: the government wants households to stick together, as your risk across a family unit (that’s everyone who shares a dwelling) is basically identical. Couples should stay in separate households or move in together, otherwise they risk infecting themselves and others.

To which, you might say: wasn’t that obvious? To which, ok: fine, it’s obvious to you, but it’s not obvious to everyone and seeing as everyone who doesn’t get that message is going to endanger not only themselves but you and everyone you know, it’s in your interests to facilitate opportunities for people to whom it is not obvious to ask those questions.

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The problem, as I wrote yesterday, is that I think in general we’re caught in a trap in which most of the media is servicing the most engaged chunk of the population – the chunk which is pretty across the information from the government and has a good idea what’s coming next. And at the moment, there are two barriers. The first is that for journalists to ask the important and basic questions like “can I see my girlfriend?” “What should I do if my car’s MOT is about to expire?” they have to forego the opportunity to ask important and complex questions like “What are you doing to help the self-employed?” and “Why are construction workers still being made to go into work?” . The second is that news organisations have an inevitable bias towards, well, news: so the answers to important and complex questions will always get a look-in before answers to important and simple ones “everybody already knows”.

How could the government and the media tackle that? One solution might be to have a prime time “ask me anything” with a government spokesperson and either the chief medical officer or deputy chief medical officer from either the devolved or national governments on the BBC. People could text, tweet and phone their Covid-19 related queries. It would help the government by providing a live flow of information about how they should be communicating better – and it would help combat Covid-19 because fewer people would, to coin a phrase, die of ignorance.