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The Debate over UK Government Messaging During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Part 1—Planning and Messaging

The key requirements of a government during a national emergency are a plan and competent messaging. Part 1 discusses forming a plan and takes a detailed look at the nature of messaging.

The Debate over UK Government Messaging During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Part 1—Planning and Messaging
Smashicons, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The task of guiding and managing a population through a pandemic falls to government. At times of national emergency, there are four factors which a government must control and command.

  1. Plan.
    A government must have a well-developed pandemic plan.
  2. Communication.
    A government must communicate the plan to its population with clarity and precision, and must have an active and competent understanding of messaging.
  3. Execution.
    Effective communication, accompanied by clear and consistent messaging, will allow the plan to be executed successfully.
  4. Support.
    If a government can successfully execute its plan it can maintain the support of its population throughout the crisis, which is essential if it is to competently steer its nation through a national emergency.

So, what was, or is, the UK government’s pandemic plan? How well has it been communicated, and how effective is the government’s messaging? Indeed, has a plan actually been executed? And has the UK government managed to maintain the support of its electorate throughout the pandemic?

Across four related articles, I attempt to address these questions and to discuss the ideas surrounding them, while occasionally letting off a little steam in the process!

As an ordinary and unremarkable member of the British public who has observed and watched events unfold during the pandemic, and who, like many, believes he knows better than the government — evidenced by countless rants at politicians on TV from my comfortable sofa — I hope to discuss, in detail, the failings of the UK government’s messaging, offer alternatives to some of the chosen routes of management of the pandemic, and to suggest or highlight better solutions to some of the messaging issues that have arisen during the course of the last two years — with the occasional soupçon of sarcasm and sometimes the tiniest pinch of cynicism thrown-in for good measure.

Declaration & Disclaimer
This article is written for my own benefit. I am not a member of any political party or organisation and I do not promote or subscribe to any particular political ideology.

This is one of a series of four articles written (and re-written) over two to three weeks. They do not represent or portray my political beliefs which, frankly, are many, varied, contradictory and everchanging — or should that be, ‘continually evolving’?

Each article, is a reference point and an outlet for ideas, and they serve as a constructive method for releasing thoughts from my head and into the open in some formal manner, i.e. it’s better to write than to shout at the TV!

While the content may bear nothing of merit, and may not be particularly well written (despite my best attempts), one aspect I have found useful, is that they contain many links to sources across the internet within a single, and hopefully, memorable reference point, and regardless of the content of these articles, the sources I use within them may also be useful to others for their own projects.

Please, don’t take anything I say too seriously! I am experimenting and exploring, discovering that the world is broken, fixed, and broken again, that it often doesn’t make any sense at all, and that it is compulsively and inordinately interesting — but I hope that at lease some of what I try to contribute is as thought-provoking to those who come across my writings, as it has been for me.

Developing a Plan

As already stated, in a pandemic a government needs to have a plan, and preferably a good one, because it’s a good idea, and it is entirely reasonable to assume that all governments would already have a pandemic plan in place and ready to go — “oven ready” — so to speak. Surely, this plan would be part of its national emergency, defence of the nation against hypersonic nuclear EMP attack, all-out war, alien invasion, sky falling in, Armageddon, contingency planning arrangements?

I don’t know for sure, but there is one, patently obvious fact. A pandemic lasts for years, not months.

When the pandemic arrived at the start of 2020, it should have been obvious to governments that a novel coronavirus would be around for a long time to come, if not forever. Therefore, long-term thinking would need to be applied to any pandemic plan in order to allow governments to guide their populations and economies through the crisis as gracefully as possible.

The goal of the plan would be to reach an endemic phase, or a post-pandemic era, which would, by definition, be some years from the initial outbreak.

The tools that governments need to develop a pandemic plan have been available for decades — staring them in the face — so the requirement for long-term thinking, long-term strategies and for long-term planning, should have been well established within any administration’s world-view psyche.

Simply put, a pandemic is long haul, and planning for one is a no-brainer. It could save a lot of trouble.

The Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, famously said on 16 March 2020, “Our key message is: test, test, test.” No doubt he would agree that, at any time in the years before the outbreak of Covid-19, the WHO’s key message to governments regarding pandemics, would have been: plan, plan, plan!

Two decades before the current pandemic, back in 1999, and revised in 2005, the WHO developed a pandemic phases guidance document1N. C. for B. Information, U. S. N. L. of M. 8600 R. Pike, B. MD, and 20894 Usa, THE WHO PANDEMIC PHASES. World Health Organization, 2009 [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK143061/. [Accessed: 21-Dec-2021]. It provides a six-phased approach in “a global framework to aid countries in pandemic preparedness and response planning“. The framework also elaborates on the “periods after the first pandemic wave … to facilitate post pandemic recovery activities“.

In other words, pandemics have been known about, thought about, and planned for, in detail, for decades.

Strategies and frameworks already exist which provide substantial building blocks designed to assist governments to develop their own national response to a global pandemic, nicely triggered and managed through the guidance of a comprehensive, national pandemic plan.

The WHO has done the heavy lifting. The work has already been done. So a government has only to adapt the readymade frameworks to its own demographic and put measures and protocols in place and on standby, so they can be checked, drilled and practised, perhaps once every three months.

All governments should already have a comprehensive pandemic plan.

Communication and Messaging

A brilliant plan may have been developed, and practised, and drilled, and rehearsed, every quarter for many years, but it exists only on paper, as a concept, if it cannot be communicated effectively to the population. The people of the nation are the key players. They need to know what to do. However, communication is complicated, and even the best plan will fail if it is communicated badly.

Notably, communication is the bridge between the plan as a concept and the plan as a reality. The purpose of communication is to deliver understanding, and it is only when there is understanding, that the plan can be executed successfully.

Understanding the plan, or a relevant part of it, is how the plan becomes executed — how it becomes a reality.

In many industrial and commercial pursuits and, to a certain extent, in everyday life, communication has been perfected, so that mistakes, interpretations and misunderstandings are minimised. Personally, I call this ‘top-level’ communication, and is probably what most people would characterise as good communication.

To take a very simple example, Bob, a metal fabricator, must make bolts to a required specification as part of a project, or plan. Jane, also a metal fabricator, must make the nuts to fit Bob’s bolts. Therefore, Bob and Jane must understand the relevant parts of the plan that apply to them — Bob, the specification of the bolt, and Jane, the specification of the nut. The clarity of communication surrounding the specifications of the nuts and bolts, determines how quickly, accurately and effectively Bob and Jane can commence executing their parts of the plan, or project.

If we add that Jack, an assembler, uses the nuts and bolts made by Jane and Bob to construct a part of the project, then there is a chain-linked process.

Perhaps it may also be useful for Bob, Jane and Jack to understand how their parts of the plan relate to each other? On the other hand, perhaps that would complicate matters unnecessarily? At the very least, the plan can only be executed by communicating what is required, and the plan works best when communication is delivered with clarity.

In top-level communication, most of the ‘work’ has already been done. Technical specifications inhabit the realm of accuracy and precision. A millimetre and a micron are internationally defined distances. The thread of a nut and bolt, and their dimensions, have a plethora of precisely pre-defined measurements and tolerances, codified, and according to the material from which they are fabricated. This is the communication ‘work’. The minutiae has been formalised so that communicating the plan is relatively straightforward. It bears clarity:

Make 3000 nuts to these specifications. Package and dispatch to this address, for the attention of this person, for delivery on or before this date.

Some everyday communication has also been formalised: the length of a day, an hour, minute, second, a millisecond, and we consult the Gregorian calendar to arrange days and dates for delivery of goods, or an evening meal out with friends.

Top-level communication is relatively easy because it uses received group understanding to describe what are essentially, simple facts. The plan may be to meet on Saturday 29 June at 7pm, outside the cinema, or to construct four table legs from Pine, each with a square profile and 6mm flat-bevelled corners, all 830mm long. These plans are communicated with clarity. What is interesting is that they bear little or no ‘message’.

So, if there is top-level communication, dealing in facts, what is ‘low-level’ communication?

Low-level communication, as I refer to it, deals with the abstract — risk, danger, possibilities, belief, fear, greed, faith, hope, and really tricky abstracts, such as inference, intuition, implication, importance, assumption, feel, sense and perception. These abstracts are encompassed in messaging, and this kind of communication, dealing in abstracts, is a crucial requirement of governments during a pandemic.

Messaging is an important aspect of communication which often goes unacknowledged and ironically, is a potential obstacle to effective, or good, communication.

One of the simplest examples is the classic mixed message: “Do as I say, not as I do.” But to understand the magnitude of the importance of messaging, it is worth discussing and experimenting with it in some detail.

Social psychologist, Professor Steve Reicher, explains messaging much better than I can. That’s why he’s a Professor. In his Twitter feed, he has documented numerous examples of UK government messaging during the pandemic. In one thread, he explains how messaging around ‘the route to recovery‘ is a delicate balancing act across three main factors. Here, he addresses the third:

“The third factor is a sense of risk. If people believe there is no danger they won’t act to mitigate it. So, being too positive and giving a set date when restrictions will soon be gone can lead people to believe that the risk has also gone and so mitigations are no longer needed.”

Stephen Reicher, Twitter thread, “The route to recovery” 17-Mar-21

And he concludes with what I call, ‘see-saw hands’:

For balanced messaging, a ‘see-saw hands’ explanation has to conclude with, or give the sense that, both hands are on the level, not one higher than the other. It presents two aspects to be weighed against each other which, through explanation and contingency, resolve to present an inescapable answer — the message.

In Professor Reicher’s tweet, he offers a positive ‘on the one hand’ which is balanced out by the negative ‘on the other hand’ and resolves to a clear course of action.

Things are improving because of what we are doing, and the hope is that it will lead to a good summer [all positive]. But if we relax what we are doing there is the danger of a spike in cases [negative, contingent on relaxing the rules], and we risk the hope of a good summer [negative, contingent on relaxing the rules]. So we should continue doing what we are doing, to avoid a spike [positive, contingent on keeping the rules] and to keep hopes alive for summer [positive finish, contingent on keeping the rules].

The inescapable answer, or guidance, or message, is to keep doing what we’re doing.

Note that I have interpreted Professor Reicher’s tweet, or have I paraphrased it? Possibly, but not really.

Professor Reicher is sending an abstract communication, a message, which weighs risk (which is reducing), presents targets (avoid a spike / a good summer) and offers hope (a good summer) but with conditions (rules relaxed / not relaxed).

But again, I have interpreted the tweet — and this is the central challenge with messaging: trying to ensure that everyone receives the same message.

It can be argued that there are other messages in the tweet, but they are far from obvious or clear, venturing instead, into conjecture and groundless conspiracy theories.

What is most interesting is that the tweet contains a very clear main message which, no matter how you paraphrase or interpret it — as I have, twice — it remains loud and clear: Keep doing what you’re doing!

What is also very clear from my several attempts at rewriting Professor Reicher’s tweet, is that it can be profoundly difficult to achieve clear messaging.

So, as I understand it, the ‘message’ is not necessarily what was thought to be ‘communicated’. And, as already stated, messaging involves perception and implication. It extends beyond mere words. People make assumptions from tone, demeanor, timing and choice of words.

For example, you may attempt to be animated and enthusiastic when explaining something very important to a group, such as a world-wide outbreak of a novel coronavirus. Your intention is to provide emphasis and urgency. However, after your speech you may be told by your boss to ‘calm it down’ because you run the risk of panicking people!

Alternatively, you may decide to adopt a calmer tone and a settled demeanor. At least, that’s how you see it. You are intending to be seen as cool, calm and deliberate, and hoping to command some gravitas. But afterwards, you overhear someone say, “Well, they seemed very laid back, so it can’t be that important”!

Rules may be written and formally taught, but they may not be followed. Examples of this can be found in workplaces everywhere.

In a butchery business employees may be taught that they must always use the finger guard when using the electric meat slicer. But the culture of the workplace may ignore this rule for reasons that do not necessarily make any sense, such as, we’re experienced / cool / bored / rebellious / we never used to use the finger guard / we don’t like the boss, so we don’t use the finger guard — that is, when the boss isn’t looking!

The communication from the boss is that everyone must always use the finger guard. To a new employee who uses the meat slicer for the first time and diligently engages the finger guard, the message they receive is in the form of frowns, smirks and shaking of heads, before they are made to understand that only brown noses or amateurs use the finger guard!

In the workplace the cool, rebellious culture is more important than the rules, because the boss is disliked, meaning that what the boss says is to be ignored, which means the finger guard rule should also be ignored.

And indeed, the message is different depending on whether the boss frowns, smiles, points a finger or winks, while telling an employee to, “Follow the rules”.

There is subtlety and complexity in messaging which can easily be missed, or sent unintentionally, and which can distort the intended communication. But the message can also be blatant.

Conflicting messages convey no clear communication. A request to, “Paint the wall red and don’t paint it red,” is patently absurd, and would send a message to the recipient that the sender as an idiot! The communication, as it stands, will result in no action, and the wall will not be painted.

“Paint the wall red, and then green, and paint it blue, too,” is not as absurd as it sounds, because the task can be done. In that respect it is a valid piece of communication, but the message sent by the communication would give rise to ridicule of the sender for its lack of clarity, accompanied by multiple questions which must be answered before any action can take place. How is it to be done? In what order? Is it to be striped? If so, are they vertical, diagonal, horizontal? Should the colours be blended? And so on. The communication is simple but completely unclear because the message within the communication is mixed, and therefore, confusing.

Messaging is complicated, and often difficult to get right. It takes practise, skill and understanding, but it is an essential tool which a government must master, if it is to communicate its plan, clearly, consistently, and therefore, successfully.

However, Professor Reicher’s balanced approach is not natural for politicians. British politics is, by nature, adversarial — energetically promoting one point of view and decrying the alternatives. A balanced approach is anathema in politics. Politicians would rather state either that there is a risk, or that there is not a risk, and they would probably argue that Professor Reicher’s message is confusing. The general complexity and difficulty of messaging, balanced or not, is perhaps why politicians tend either to not to use it well, or use it in ignorance.

An interesting example is the approach of the then Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, when he appealed to the nation to co-operate with the new NHS Test and Trace service in the wake of the Dominic Cummings lockdown rule breaking scandal, in May 2020.

The scandal provoked public anger and outrage when it appeared that Mr Cummings had broken lockdown rules yet, faced no consequences. It was made worse by his explanation of events, from behind a table in the rose garden of 10 Downing Street, which appeared contrived, untrue, and some of it, ridiculous.

It aired a furious public response in attitudes which threatened to break the rules because Mr Cummings could do so without consequences. “Doing a Dom,” and ridicule surrounding eye tests at Barnard Castle became mainstream on social media, among work mates, between friends and in households across the country.

The country was angry, which clearly concerned some members of the government who feared it had lost authority or some degree of control over public co-operation with lockdown rules and pandemic measures.

With a new NHS Test and Trace system coming into operation at enormous public expense, Mr Hancock took a ‘robust’ approach to securing public support for the service.

“And the instructions to people are clear:

“If you get symptoms, isolate immediately and get a test.

“If you are contacted by NHS Test and Trace instructing you to isolate, you must.

“It is your civic duty, so you avoid unknowingly spreading the virus and you help to break the chain of transmission.

“This will be voluntary at first, because we trust everyone to do the right thing, but we can quickly make it mandatory if that’s what it takes.

“Because, if we don’t collectively make this work, then the only way forward is to keep the lockdown.

“Put better, the more people follow the instructions, the safer we will be and the faster we can safely lift the lockdown.”

Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, statement on coronavirus (COVID-19): 27 May 2020, Launch of the NHS Test and Trace service.
Launch of the NHS Test and Trace service. Full press briefing, 27 May, 2020.
Video starts at 6:09: Matt Hancock on ‘civic duty’.

The communication is, “Please, please, please co-operate with my new Test and Trace service… Please!” But the messaging he transmits is somewhat threatening, patronising and manipulative: “If you don’t co-operate with my new service, then you’re a bad, bad person. And anyway, I don’t care, because if you don’t co-operate, I can force you to. Eat that, suckers!”

OK, so I’m being sarcastic; disingenuous, perhaps — sending a message!

The patronising aspect was in his tone and delivery, something which I don’t think he can help — Oops! I’m off again…

What is surprising — astonishing even — is his ineptitude within his rather clumsy acknowledgment, within the same statement, that there is a ‘better’ way to convey his remarks:

“Put better, the more people follow the instructions, the safer we will be and the faster we can safely lift the lockdown.”

Why not just say this?

In the following days he repeated his message:

“If you test positive you must work with NHS test and trace to identify who you’ve been in close contact with and if you are asked by NHS test and trace to isolate, you must do so to break the chain of transmission and to stop the spread of the virus. I would even go so far as to say that participation with NHS test and trace is your civic duty…

“And finally, I want to thank you for your participation. It is brilliant that the vast majority of people have done their civic duty.”

Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, statement on coronavirus (COVID-19): 11 June 2020, NHS Test and Trace service update.

At best, Mr Hancock’s approach was heavy handed. At worst, it was insulting. But the debacle concerning Mr Cummings had struck fear into the Health Secretary, and his government. Believing that the scandal had so severely dented the government’s authority, Mr Hancock clearly believed that he had no choice but to come out fighting — gloves off!

Perhaps he thought he was delivering tough love? Unfortunately, he portrayed himself more as a deluded amateur paramilitary guy turning up to a rather heated living room debate, brandishing a GE-M134 minigun, ready to rock-n-roll with 60-rounds a second at the next dissenter!

People were angry, but they were still listening. They were still generally compliant. They wanted to get out of lockdown, and they’re not fools, generally. So, although they were indeed very cross, the vast majority of people were still prepared to do what it takes; to do the right thing. Mr Hancock and his chums were quite some distance away from facing mass riots and looting on the streets.

Externally, Mr Hancock betrayed very poor judgement, but he did not act without the consensus of his government. And this raises questions over the internal regime, the quality of its judgement at the heart of government and the acuity and accuracy of its feel and instinct for public consensus.

On a more realistic note, Mr Hancock’s motivation to act as he did possibly stemmed much more from the fact that the Test and Trace system was allocated a colossal £22 billion, at the outset. Quite aside from it being an extremely good earner for himself and his chums, he realised he should be a little desperate to ensure that the enormous projected cost could be justified to the minions.

Of course, he would also have wanted to assist his lovely friend, Baroness Harding of Winscombe, to emerge from the initiative to which he had recently appointed her, not only absolutely loaded, and dragging herself from the organisation under the sheer weight of cash she had collected, but also dancing with summer flowers in her hair and smelling of roses.

On the cash side, she did. On the competence side, she didn’t. It was another of her disasters to add to the list, but more on that later.

The weakest link in the chain leading to the world-beating success of the new and super-expensive Test and Trace service, was the compliance of the bally public. Yes, those fools, again. It would have dawned on Mr Hancock, eventually, that the only way it was ever going to succeed was if people did what they were bally well told. So, being of the noble sort, he took it upon himself to bally well make sure that the multitudinous throng of the great unwashed towed the bally line!


It is an inescapable fact that a government’s communication with its population will form a central feature of everyday life for the duration of any national emergency. Consequently, the communication and the messaging of a government is the keystone to managing the actions, expectations and morale of its population.

Government communication is what it says it says. This is represented in a permanent, official public record of the laws it passes and the printed guidance it issues, such as stay at home and don’t travel from London to stay near Barnard Castle to get your eyes tested.

Government messaging, however, is transmitted through what it actually says and does, both verbally and non-verbally, in real time. This would be its conduct, its performance, its press releases, briefings, interviews, progress reports, statistics, its actions, and all the actions, words and conduct of the individuals within government. It is a complex collection of rumour, speculation, factual reporting, interpretation, argument, counter-argument and simple facts, all randomly distributed across newspapers, articles, social media threads, studies, official reports, unofficial reports, academic papers, pamphlets, and the general online world. A bad message would be a government official understanding that the rules say he must stay at home and must not travel from London to stay near Barnard Castle so he can get his eyes tested, but who travels from London anyway, to stay near Barnard Castle so he can get his eyes tested — and suffer no consequences for breaking the rules.

It is, therefore, crucial that a government addresses a national emergency with cohesive clarity of purpose and policy. In a pandemic, a government must act as a monolithic entity, working to a clear plan, which is communicated with consistency and clarity by everyone concerned. To do this successfully it must have a fundamental understanding of messaging and exercise it with the utmost wisdom.


Sources

  • 1
    N. C. for B. Information, U. S. N. L. of M. 8600 R. Pike, B. MD, and 20894 Usa, THE WHO PANDEMIC PHASES. World Health Organization, 2009 [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK143061/. [Accessed: 21-Dec-2021]
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