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19 March 2020

Boris Johnson and the media need to inject more uncertainty into the coronavirus debate

The Prime Minister’s hint that there is light at the end of the tunnel is a risky strategy. 

By Stephen Bush

The Covid-19 outbreak is a culture war. The cultures in conflict are those of science and medical discovery, which are couched in both uncertainty and relative transparency – when your blood tests come back, we should be able to eliminate some causes – and of politics, which craves certainty and enjoys secrecy.

Boris Johnson told reporters he believes that the United Kingdom will be able to exit its Covid-19 fighting measures in 12 weeks thanks to medical advances in the detection and treatment of the disease, provided the British public commits to a period of social distancing. But upon further questioning he clarified, saying he could not “with confidence” guarantee that the period would be over by the end of June.

It’s certainly possible the treatment of Covid-19 will have turned a decisive corner in 12 weeks – but it is not certain. It is also possible that seemingly fruitful paths to defeat the disease will have ended in failure or that the disease itself may have changed or mutated.

And Johnson knows this full well: the government’s £330bn package of support for businesses and households, and its planned bill to allow it to spend much, much more, would be insanely overpowered if the country was looking with certainty at a period of merely 12 weeks. The emergency powers law, which the government will pass next week, would be a truly ridiculous piece of legislation if the pandemic could be seen off in around three months.

Saying it could, in front of a political media which also tends to prioritise certainty, may be helpful to the government. Perhaps its behavioural scientists think they are more likely to get public buy-in for a prolonged period of limited social contact if they can present it as a result of the failure of Brits, particularly Londoners, to self-isolate. But there’s a risk in telling people there is light at the end of the tunnel. People may decide social distancing is a price that should be paid by someone else. The government may also find that if this crisis takes longer than 12 weeks to resolve, it is incapable of winning support for the necessary measures to do so.

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The problem is not only of Boris Johnson’s making. Much of the British political media craves and demands certainty. Johnson ought to, as a prime minister at the start of his term and with a majority that should guarantee a second term in office, be better at resisting the pull towards soundbite cetainty. But we ought, as journalists, do a better job of conveying uncertainty too.