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24 March 2020

The problems that remain after the UK government’s coronavirus lockdown

The lack of income protection for the self-employed and continued public confusion are the greatest challenges. 

By Stephen Bush

The United Kingdom has gone into near total-lockdown. From now until the crisis ends, we must all stay at home other than to exercise, which we can do once a day, either in the company of our households or alone, when shopping for necessities, which we should do as infrequently as possible, for medical reasons or to support the vulnerable or for work: but only when absolutely necessary.

The measures that Boris Johnson has announced are sensible and ones that most people were trying to do anyway – that YouGov’s overnight poll shows 93 per cent of people support them is testament to that. 

But there are problems coming down the track. The first is that it deepens the financial plight faced by the self-employed, who have yet to receive income protections to match those of salaried workers. That’s the economic consequence of the British government’s U-turn last Monday: the week in which the government’s plan was to protect the vulnerable and for the rest of us to continue on essentially as normal meant a week in which the disease spread more widely, complex policy questions weren’t addressed and confusion spread among the population.

That’s linked to the same big task: public confusion. There are two big public information tasks ahead: the first is to equip people with the information required to observe social distancing measures correctly. I outlined some of the challenges in yesterday’s email.

Boris Johnson’s pre-recorded statement – which benefited from the additional clarity and discipline that the pre-record brought – was watched by 27 million people last night, 80 per cent of all those watching TV last night – but less than a third of the UK’s total population. Are the UK’s less-engaged citizens, the people who limit their news consumption to a Facebook feed of around 57 friends and listen only to music radio, getting the information they need and in a format they understand? The whole country is getting a text from the government but the attached information is legalistic and fairly complex. 

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There’s clearly a huge amount of resentment towards people who are believed to be acting selfishly – but are we in the press, as well as the government, doing enough to remind people that they can’t guess if someone is a key worker just by looking? There seems to be a worrying attitude abroad in this country that every key worker is a 40-something woman in a nurse’s outfit. In my own neighbourhood, I’ve seen delivery drivers and young doctors told off on their way to work because they don’t fit the stereotype – we only need one or two have-a-go heroes to prevent a supposedly selfish person leaving their home to have big implications for a hospital or a grocer’s ability to function. 

The big question that should be haunting all of us in the media and the government is: are we doing enough for the millions of people who weren’t watching television last night, are all of our citizens as informed as they need to be about the changes to lives and how to follow them, and what could we do differently if the answer to that question is “no”?