The Debate over UK Government Messaging During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Part 2—Is there a Plan?

What was the UK Government’s plan? Did one exist at all, or was the government firefighting and desperately piecing together the semblance of a plan, only to see each iteration disintegrate?

The Debate over UK Government Messaging During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Part 2—Is there a Plan?
Smashicons, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Years of copious research from masses of accumulated, real-world data has created a knowledgebase which, despite its prowess, gives no clear indication as to how long a pandemic will last. A few weeks, months, years? No one knows. Therefore, there was no reason to expect or assume that Covid-19 would be short-lived. In the absence of any conclusive evidence to the contrary, the government’s plan would have to accommodate a long-term view.

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 their content, the sources I use within the articles may also be useful to others for their own projects.

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

The UK Government’s Plan

Unfortunately, the benefit of hindsight shows what I suspected at the time. The UK government initially adopted the view that Covid-19 would be short-lived. Events at the time illustrate a view in government which approximated:

  • Flatten the curve (somehow)
  • Herd immunity (somehow)
  • All over by Summer (hopefully)

It is doubtful that this was the prevailing choice of strategy amongst the scientific community. Indeed, the scientific community does not make government policy, but a short-term view of the crisis does appear to have been the starting point, the initial premise, of UK government thinking. To begin with, the government’s plan was short-term and minimal.

‘Flattening the curve’, as it is called, is achieved by reducing or stopping transmission of the disease by extending the time over which most, or all, of a population is infected. There are many methods for achieving this, from social distancing to total lockdown. The government, based on the fact that Covid-19 is a coronavirus, and in the absence of any detailed knowledge of the virus, initially seemed to adopted the view that the disease was perhaps no worse than a bad common cold and that the population would just have to get used to it. A little social distancing and a bit of hand washing for 20-seconds, while singing a song, would do the trick. And, bingo! Herd immunity in no time!

No doubt, scientists were scratching their heads in the absence of eagerly awaited data, research and evidence. What do you advise a government when you know so little about a disease? The UK’s chief scientific adviser did his best with what he had, which was very little, and talked about supressing the virus “but not get rid of it completely”, protect the vulnerable, but let other people get sick, and saying that “probably about 60 percent” of people would need to be infected to achieve herd immunity.

However, the idea of herd immunity is poorly understood outside the world of science, conjuring a ‘lambs to the slaughter’ scenario in the minds of much of the public. Indeed, when it was briefly aired to the nation it provoked outrage. Nevertheless, scientifically, herd immunity would have been a valid consideration at the time, but more as a modelling possibility than a recommended real-world approach to a novel coronavirus pandemic, and especially given its known lack of public appeal. Nevertheless, the government adopted the view that herd immunity was achievable by slowing the rate of infection with a few simple measures which would flatten the curve.

‘All over by Summer’ was transmitted through the government’s poor and misleading messaging, which was often overly positive, naively optimistic or just plain stupid. It was a fantasy which would never have been suggested as a viable possibility by scientists. But the government took the view that it might be possible to reach herd immunity by summer, in which case it would all be over.

It seems that the government snatched at ideas, with very little understanding of them. It cobbled the ideas together which it thought would stamp-out the crisis in the shortest possible time, an attempt, and perhaps a desperate attempt, to end or kill the virus as soon as possible — perhaps seeing the pandemic more as a series of small domestic fires to be tamped out, than a plague of locusts.

The lack of a pre-loaded, practised, comprehensive, forward-looking, long-term pandemic plan meant experts like Sir Patrick Vallance were put on the spot. Rather than referring to a UK pandemic plan which inform what needed to be done when, on 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic, the government seemed to have no option but to run to Sir Patrick and the scientist.

Indeed, it seemed perfectly plausible when Mr Johnson said the government would ‘follow the science’, but actually, there was no science. It was a novel coronavirus! It was ‘new’! In March 2020, scientists knew diddly-squat! There was no science to follow. We needed a plan!

An alternative perspective worth considering is the emerging situation from the Conservative government’s Brexit-saturated position at the time. It could be said that Brexit was a really good movie the government was watching on TV, and Covid-19 was some random group of people blocking their view, right in the middle of the car chase! We all know that feeling!

A Government for Brexit, only

It is worth considering the context of the UK government at the time of the coronavirus outbreak.

In December 2019, Prime Minister Johnson’s Conservative Party was elected to power with a landslide majority on a manifesto which promised to end what had become a long-standing national headache. It was elected to ‘Get Brexit Done’. The slogan was everywhere, and so the UK government was founded, organised, positioned and entirely motivated to do that one job.

Arguably, it was not a broad-based, multi-skilled administration, of a kind designed to accomplish and administer a broad manifesto of ‘ordinary’ policies. Rather, it was a single-minded and narrowly skilled cabinet, driven by one purpose — Brexit.

This government was established to bolster Britain, to sing its praises across the world, to establish freeports, ignore the Europeans, strike free trade deals galore — particularly with the USA — but generally to say how great and how much better the UK is at everything, than the rest of the world. The only requirement of ministers and secretaries of state, seems to be a proclivity to boosterism and self-aggrandisation of the UK.

No sooner than it was elected, the Johnson government was confronted by an unstoppable force, a pandemic, a gigantic and unexpected challenge which seemed right on course to obliterate any immediate Brexit ambitions. It threatened to divert government and public attention away from the grand project of getting Brexit done, and more importantly, like a colossal vacuum hose pipe, it was heading directly for the Treasury to suck out the door and consume colossal sums of money, including all the cash stuffed under Rishi Sunak’s bed earmarked for Brexit nirvana. A gigantic, mutated, red Henry vacuum cleaner, set to max, with multiple, flailing, cash-sucking, corrugated black hose nozzles, and with the small brush attachments on the ends, was looming to suck the nation into an economic crisis of unknown magnitude and duration.

Initially, the government seemed to fight-off the flailing nozzles by refusing to acknowledge their presence; as if, bizarrely, the problem would simply disappear if ignored. However, denial is a natural first reaction to a crisis, and especially if it’s a giant, red, spinning Henry vacuum cleaner with multiple flailing pipes heading your way. First thoughts would be to not have another drink and go to bed. But if it’s still there through a hangover in the morning, smart thinking would be to go looking for the end of the power cord. Perhaps the government was busy doing that, to begin with.

Alas, the hungry cash-sucking Henry is solar powered, its red livery belying its impeccable green credentials.

So, begrudgingly, a few weeks later, having failed in its quest to find Henry’s 13-amp plug, the government submitted to taking some sort of pandemic initiative. The measures were short-term fixes and little more than tiny sticking plasters over increasingly inflicted and increasingly deeper, wounds.

Eventually, Henry crash-landed outside 11 Downing Street and scared the hell out of Mr Sunak. The government finally understood that it needed to act, that it needed to manage the crisis, and that it needed to lead the country through it. The Chancellor handed out billions, much to the delight of Henry, who promptly flew away with the money. But within months, the government set about dismantling all traces of crisis leadership and administration, primarily because it was still in denial. But let’s face it, a mutated Henry vacuum cleaner cleaning you out takes some getting over!

But there was also another powerful factor in play. The nature of managing a pandemic goes entirely against a Conservative government’s political beliefs and so-called instincts.

I have heard rebuttals from government ministers and Conservative MPs that UK government messaging during the pandemic was not confusing — not at all — and that, indeed, it has been perfectly clear from the start.

I would disagree, and argue that the messaging of the UK government surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic has been conflicting, inadequate, late, confusing, sometimes deliberately vague, and ineffective overall. At best, government messaging has been seriously flawed, and at worst, it has failed.

Characterised over the last two years, by indecisive, sometimes absent, leadership and abysmal decision making, it has become obvious that the UK government has never had a cohesive, long-term plan, and that where it has attempted to assemble something that looks like a plan, it was in fact, a last-minute, poorly thought-out failure.

The lack of a plan explains why the country has stumbled and lurched through the pandemic for nearly two years. The government adopted a heavily populist, self-aggrandising approach to the crisis, and especially to the only initiative it was lucky enough to be handed — a vaccine. It was quick to claim credit for the vaccine itself and the impressive rollout. It was quite the contrary. The National Health Service administered the stunning vaccine rollout and the government failed in its role to properly drive the latter stages of the rollout.

No plan resulted in poor messaging, and explains why the UK government managed to cause extensive damage to the nation’s economy, even greater damage to the health and mental wellbeing of its population, and needlessly inflicted terrible suffering and loss on hundreds of thousands of individuals and their families.

Now, the world is confronted by a new ‘variant of concern’ — Omicron — and the UK government finds itself with little or no contingency to deal with it. All that remains portrays a significant amount of desperation from government, and a cabinet sitting in pure hope.

But, as the saying goes, it didn’t have to be like this.

Up Next:

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

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