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13 May 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 5:45am

What went wrong with the government’s communications strategy over the weekend?

Former No 10 officials tell the NS they “can't explain” the government's strategy over the past 48 hours.

By Ailbhe Rea

The past 48 hours have been perhaps the most difficult of the government’s handling of coronavirus to date. We have been at a crucial juncture, as the government seeks to tweak the guidance for lockdown, shift the emphasis of its messaging and encourage people who can’t work from home to return to work. But the change of message has not been a smooth one. 

After a series of jubilant headlines on Thursday (7 May) morning, claiming that the lockdown would be lifted in Boris Johnson’s much-hyped address to the nation, there followed a weekend of confusion. 

On the morning of Sunday 10 May, the new “Stay alert” slogan was released to much criticism (“I don’t know what ‘stay alert’ means,” remarked Nicola Sturgeon), accompanied by an uncomfortable broadcast round for the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, who struggled to explain the guidance and emphasised the need to wait for the Prime Minister’s address. 

On Sunday evening, Boris Johnson’s statement was met with disappointment and confusion. There followed what has been characterised by the Financial Times as a “day of confusion”. First, a broadcast round for Dominic Raab in which he could not answer many of the questions posed to him; then, the release of the new guidance, followed by Johnson’s statement to the House of Commons, where he was unable to meet opposition leaders’ demands for clarity on a long list of queries about the new guidance and returning to work. Further efforts to clarify guidance continue today, with statements and more interviews from the Health Secretary, the Transport Secretary and the Chancellor. The Sun has criticised the government’s recent performance as a “shambles”; the Telegraph now calls it a “disaster”.

What went wrong with the government’s communications strategy over the past 48 hours? The New Statesman spoke to former Downing Street officials and experienced political communications strategists, who were broadly in agreement in their analysis of what went wrong and what they still cannot explain about the government’s approach over the weekend.

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“I don’t understand why you would have the Prime Minister go on television at 7pm on a Sunday night to announce a new set of rules that no one can see for another 18 hours,” says Ben Rathe, a former press secretary to Jo Swinson and press officer under Nick Clegg. Johnson set out the new policy direction in his Sunday evening speech, but the guidance underpinning it was not published until Monday afternoon. 

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“Theresa [May] would never have made a statement like that without ensuring that the accompanying documentation was laid in the House of Commons at the same time, for people to refer to, because you just leave so many questions unanswered,” Chris Wilkins, former director of strategy at No 10 under May, tells the NS. “It’s hard to understand the rationale behind doing it. I keep looking for the method behind the madness but I can’t find it.” 

“What would have made far more sense is the Prime Minister gives his statement at 7 o’clock on Sunday night and then at 7.30pm all the guidance comes out. Then a minister uses the morning round to clear up any questions that you’ve got overnight about the guidance,” says Rathe.

Instead, the statement was made before the guidance was published, engendering nearly a full day of confusion and a “hospital pass” of a broadcast round for Raab, as Rathe puts it.

“Something must have gone badly wrong,” say several ex-Downing Street officials independently of each other. One suggests that the guidance simply wasn’t ready on time; others that it was a strange fudge in order to access the higher viewer figures of a Sunday night, without disregarding parliament by publishing the guidance separately. (The guidance was published as a “command paper”, attached to the Prime Minister’s statement to the House of Commons on Monday afternoon.) 

Ultimately, former No 10 figures suggest, the government should have either published the guidance with the statement on Sunday night and weathered the storm of bypassing parliament, or it should have done both on Monday in the Commons, assuming that people would tune into a statement on Monday afternoon for such an extraordinary event. 

“It seems to me that they’ve been adopting a strategy that is suited to a campaign but less to governing, says Wilkins, nodding to the backgrounds of Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief adviser, and Lee Cain, his director of communications, in election and referendum campaigning. “In particular, building up a big announcement at 7 o’clock on a Sunday evening set a level of expectation that it was almost impossible to rise to.”

“It’s hard to understand the rationale behind doing it, unless you’re in campaign mode. It just led to confusion and muddle, and having built it up to be this big thing, that was the worst possible outcome. It’s a bit bewildering, to be honest,” Wilkins adds.

“I don’t understand that decision, and there must be a reason for it, because they wouldn’t have done it otherwise,” says another ex-No 10 figure.

It may seem like a technicality, but every communications expert that the NS spoke to attributed the failures of recent days specifically to this delay. A simple strategy error, with the potential effect of causing the first significant wobble in the public’s confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis.

On the much-maligned slogan, “Stay alert”, the jury is out. Most agree that it is too soon to judge its effectiveness and, while agreeing the past 48 hours have been confusing, don’t specifically attribute that to the slogan. 

“I don’t have a problem with the slogan itself,” says Wilkins, May’s former director of strategy. “The slogan ‘stay alert’ is designed to shift the balance of responsibility from the government to the public, which is what they needed to do to wean people off the stay at home message.”  

As for the suggestion on social media that the slogan had been cooked up in a hurry and released without being tested for its effectiveness, experts across the political divide are highly doubtful of the idea.

“Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain are political campaigners. It’s one of their major skill-sets. I would be astonished if that hadn’t been focus-grouped, message-tested and found to sort of work. It’s just not their way of operating,” insists a former colleague of Cain.

“I was on the other side of ‘Get Brexit done’ and ‘Take back control’,” adds Rathe. “I have been on the receiving end of a focus-grouped Dominic Cummings slogan in my political career, so I’ve got absolutely no doubt that they will have focus-grouped that. There will have been an evidence base for that. I wouldn’t suggest that they just got together in a room together and came up with that. They’re too professional to have done that.”

“I don’t think we know the messaging is fine now, but we definitely don’t know it’s wrong,” is how one former No 10 official puts it, suggesting that the problem may be that no slogan could shoulder the burden of multiple nuanced public health messages as the lockdown is tweaked. 

It’s a communications challenge that the government itself acknowledges in the new guidance, and one with which former communications advisers are immensely sympathetic.

“Coronavirus is the hardest communications challenge anyone of this generation has faced,” a former senior Downing Street official in May’s administration is keen to emphasise. “This stage of the messaging is enormously complicated.”

Rathe, the former Liberal Democrat communications adviser, agrees. “They’re dealing with what is probably the most difficult communications challenge anyone in that position has faced in decades.” 

There was a major timing error and implicitly, a fundamental lack of timely preparation at a crucial juncture of the government’s changes to its pandemic response over the weekend. It is an error that no one who has been in that position can offer an explanation for. But it comes in the context of a major policy and communications challenge that few who have worked in the senior levels of government envy. Huge swathes of policy are being rushed out within days, the government is making unprecedented demands of people and as those who have worked in No 10 are keen to point out  the individuals involved are exhausted, many among them recovering from the effects of the very virus they are hoping to contain and combat on a national level.

There are plenty of other aspects of the government’s handling of this crisis that have been, and will continue to be, scrutinised. But it is worth remembering that, during a public health crisis, the communication is one of the most vital aspects of the strategy itself. There is a simple metric to judge the success or failure of the past weekend and the communications strategy to come: whether the reproduction rate of the virus remains below 1.