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17 March 2020

Any more government briefing games over coronavirus could be deadly

To ensure its advice is effective, Downing Street must avoid anonymous and contradictory statements. 

By Jasper jackson

Late is hopefully better than never. On Monday (16 March), the government began providing daily public updates on the coronavirus pandemic, starting with an address from Boris Johnson announcing that the over-70s would be asked to stay at home. He also asked the wider public to avoid “enclosed spaces” such as bars and restaurants, and for any household with a member showing symptoms associated with the virus to self-isolate for 14 days.

It was a long overdue response to fierce criticism over the briefing games and conflicting information over the preceding weeks. Government sources began briefing last week that the response to the virus was built around the concept of “herd immunity”. ITV’s political editor Robert Peston reported that this was aimed at reaching a point where enough people contracted the virus, survived and became immune, thus protecting the rest of the population, in particular the most vulnerable. 

This was followed by an article in the Telegraph from Health Secretary Matt Hancock insisting that the plans did not, after all, involve a reliance on herd immunity. Instead, he trailed the measures announced by Johnson om advising those over 70 to “self-isolate”, though without giving specific time frames. Unfortunately, the article was initially placed behind the Telegraph’s paywall, meaning a vital piece of government advice in the midst of a huge crisis was initially restricted to the newspaper’s paying subscribers.

Misinformation and disinformation has so far thrived in the void left by inadequate, inconsistent and conflicting communication from government. A reliance on the old political tools, such as anonymous briefings and commentary placed with friendly newspapers, has added to the noise and uncertainty at a time when clear advice is necessary not just to reassure the public, but to ensure they understand what to do. 

Of course, there are aspects of the virus that make it difficult to issue predictions with any certainty. We still don’t know the death rate for those who contract it, or whether those who survive will genuinely become immune and for how long, to name just two gaps in our knowledge. 

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But the government can provide clarity around its own plans, and what they believe people should be doing to mitigate the impact of the virus. Johnson has already proven an inconsistent messenger, initially insisting that the country would get through the outbreak “in good shape” before warning, just weeks later, that “many more families would lose loved ones”.

His first press conference on Monday included the announcement that the government would be removing the support of emergency services from large events, despite what he described as a low risk of spreading the virus, but no mention was made of bans. 

Nevertheless, the briefing, from Johnson, chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty, provided a degree of clarity about what the government expects. That could all be undermined if those working around Johnson fail to wean themselves off their addiction to anonymous briefings designed to manipulate, rather than inform, public thinking. 

For an example of the dangers of playing politics with public health advice, we only have to look across the Atlantic. Donald Trump and other senior Republicans in the US have repeatedly downplayed the severity of the outbreak, while some of Trump’s cheerleaders at Fox News initially framed concerns about coronavirus as a second attempt by Democrats to impeach the president. 

A poll released over the weekend highlighted the impact of this partisan approach to public health. While 80 per cent of Democrats believed the worst of the outbreak was yet to come, just 40 per cent of Republicans agreed. Meanwhile, 56 per cent of Democrats expected their day-to-day lives to change in a major way as a result of the outbreak, compared to just 26 per cent of Republicans. Perhaps most worryingly, Democrats consistently said they would change their behaviour to reduce their contact with other people at a much higher rate than Republicans.

Whichever side is right about the impact – and the evidence so far from the rest of the world suggests it is not those listening to Trump – the split down party lines is a damning indictment of the administration’s failure to communicate clearly and consistently on an issue that should be about which scientifically-backed approach to take, not who you vote for. 

The “very profound changes on social distancing” announced today will be difficult to maintain if the government cannot restrain itself from contradictory briefings. Without depoliticised and clear communication, the public will be left either confused about the government’s advice, or they simply won’t trust it. 

That could have catastrophic implications if millions of people remain unsure about the actions they should take to minimise the disease’s deadly impact on their fellow citizens.

Jasper Jackson is currently working on First Draft’s project on Coronavirus misinformation

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