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The Debate over UK Government Messaging During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Part 4—Messaging At Its Worst

Just when it seemed government messaging could not get any worse, it did! But has the UK government ended-up getting its Covid response right purely by fluke?

The Debate over UK Government Messaging During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Part 4—Messaging At Its Worst
Smashicons, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Precisely at the moment when there was the strongest possibility that the government would have to revert to the restrictions it had irreversibly removed, and invoke measures which would require the full confidence of its public, it became mired in scandal over use of MP’s time, ignited by what looked like a very public attempt to protect a government friend, Owen Patterson, a Conservative MP who had clearly broken parliamentary rules, but who refused to succumb to the will of Parliament.

On the same day as the 30 November Downing Street press conference re-introducing some Covid restrictions, the Downing Street Christmas Parties story broke. The subsequent damage it caused to Mr Johnson and his government was entirely self-inflicted by its dismal handling of the allegations.

The first week of December was, frankly, a mess for the Prime Minister and his government. It was a week into the campaign for ‘boosters by end of January’ and the effort was barely underway.

At the same time, the government attempted to hold an untenable line against allegations of Christmas parties back in 2020 — a time when the rest of the country was under heavy and painful restrictions. Was there a party, a meeting, a gathering, an event? The retort to all questions on these allegations was, “No guidelines were broken.” This became a mantra, mindlessly repeated by ministers and MPs.

In a matter of days, there were further accusations, new revelations — a photo, a video, another photo — and the idea of ‘one rule for them, another for us’ cut through to public consciousness only serving to compound the sense of public dissatisfaction.

Clearly, the government was terrified of being discovered. But what is puzzling is why the Prime Minister of a government commanding an 80-seat majority, did not calculate that he would have gained more respect from his public and better backing from his colleagues, had he simply said that something seems to have gone wrong and ordered an enquiry, while making some limited admission of palpability in the interim.

Instead, he stumbled through the week like a wounded deer and placed his government in the most feeble position, unable to mount a robust or comprehensible defence and, no doubt, looking over its shoulder wondering what the heck was coming next.

Unfortunately, Plan B came next, on Wednesday 8 December: Work from home, masks almost everywhere, and Covid passports, but the economy was to remain open.

Mr Johnson repeatedly said that Christmas parties and festive arrangements should not be altered or cancelled, that they should go ahead, with, perhaps, a little caution. He said the government was not closing businesses. It was not shutting down the economy.

There was clearly a naive belief that introducing some additional Covid-19 measures, a reversal of the irreversible, while not requiring businesses to close would have no impact on the economy. It would quickly prove to be yet another, huge government messaging miscalculation.

Against a backdrop of sleaze — what looked like an attempt to get Owen Patterson ‘off the hook’, a giant U-turn on that issue, accusations of conflicts of interest for some MPs with lucrative second jobs, and allegations that the government was partying while the country was suffering in lockdown — Mr Johnson was once again imposing Covid restrictions and asking the country to follow the rules, in a new regime of restrictions called Plan B.

Rather than provoke a begrudging but largely silent compliance, the announcement prompted begrudging compliance and ridicule — ridicule which further undermined the government’s authority.

The idea that people should work from home but go out to parties in the run-up to Christmas was pounced upon as an absurd contradiction. Questions were fired at Mr Johnson and ministers asking whether Christmas arrangements should be limited, curtailed or cancelled, given that people were being asked to work from home.

An erosion of authority means that a line of reasoning persists despite being overcome by further explanation.

The government was asking people to work from home but to take a test before they go to parties or see friends. It was asking the public to be more careful in general, but to still have fun. This is not an ideal arrangement, but it is also not an unreasonable request. However, because the government had, to that point, conducted itself so poorly, the sense of the government’s argument was lost and dismissed in a pool of ridicule. The message was immediately blurred, and by some quarters, slurred, energised by the outrage and anger invoked by the government’s behaviour in recent weeks.

Furthermore, the context of the announcement was already difficult. While Covid infections were ‘running hot’, at between 30–40,000 cases a day, deaths were ‘low’ and hospital admissions were stable. Restrictions had been lifted nearly six months before, in July. People were travelling and mixing at will. The majority of people were looking forward to a much better Christmas than the last. There was a tangible sense that life was improving and, it is fair to say, in the minds of many the pandemic was over.

The arrival of Omicron was like a shadowy figure passing the kitchen window late at night. An entire nation whispered in fear: “Ugh! What was that!?”

In the movies the victim always goes outside to try and confirm the threat. The audience covers its eyes and begs them to hide, to run away.

The same happens in real life. Confronted with something unpleasant or scary, people tend to hide and flip into denial — “This isn’t happening”.

Scientists, like the victim in the movie, go outside to investigate, to find the disease and gather the data, the evidence, and hopefully, the cure. But that process takes time. So what is a government to do in the absence of data about a clear threat with an unknown severity?

Obviously, a government should exercise its authority. Yet still, Mr Johnson further undermined his authority in an address to the nation on Sunday 12 December 2021.

He announced Covid Alert level 4 and boosters for everyone by the end of December. It was an overly ambitious target which reeked of desperation, requiring over one million jabs per day. There was speculation that it was a deliberate attempt to divert attention away from the Downing Street Christmas Parties allegations of a year before, and to deliberately stoke an approaching back-bench revolt over further Covid restrictions from a camp fire into a towering inferno. Regardless, the announcement had an effect.

The following day, a wave of demand caused the booster appointments website to crash, broke the test kit ordering system, and took the NHS completely by surprise. By the end of the week the million jabs per day target had not been met, touching only 800,000, or so.

Into the week, and Conservative back-benchers revolted in droves against their own government over the Covid passports requirement in Plan B. The vote was narrowly passed and Plan B formally came into law on 14 December, but the revolt severely harmed the Prime Minister’s authority.

As if matters could not become any worse, the population of North Shropshire was handed a very immediate method of signalling its discontent. It turned a 200-year-old safe Conservative seat over to the Liberal Democrats with a substantial majority in a by-election — one which did not need to be fought.

Many people across the country, of all political persuasions, will have appreciated the sentiment, but the reactions to the defeat by Conservative MPs did not make it clear that they, or the man leading them, truly appreciated the gravity of the loss.

It was a by-election prompted by Mr Johnson’s own actions in appearing to try and ‘save’ Owen Paterson. Paterson’s position became untenable after a colossal government climbdown, which prompted the by-election.

In an interview, Mr Johnson emphasised that he “has” to accept the result and what it represents. But this implies that he is in some way forced to do so against his judgement, which would indicate that, prior to the by-election result, he had little appreciation of the effect his actions, and those of his government, were having on his own voters. It should not have been a surprise.

The idea of going to parties but working from home was never successfully addressed, or countered, or clearly settled, and minimal input from government beyond the provisions of Plan B has left the public to act on its own. So, unsurprisingly, it did.

It led to obvious outcomes. The hospitality and travel sectors were hit hard by seasonal cancellations and no-shows because of government messaging, yet, almost unbelievably, the Johnson government did not predicted that this would happen, evidenced by the long days of silence from the Treasury and the Chancellor.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer thought it a good idea to fly to California on business just as the dismal messaging from government in the form of Plan B dribbled into the public domain. Needless to say, he was on his way back sooner than expected, on 16 December, because of the outcry from business.

No financial provision had been prepared or anticipated by government to help with the losses, or potential losses, borne by these industries. Indeed, given how long it took Mr Sunak to announce a modest £1 billon of support on 21 December, days after he arrived back from the States, shows that the government had clearly been completely blindsided by the knock-on effect of its early December and Plan B announcements. It is breathtakingly bad messaging and yet another example of the absence of a long-term plan, or of any plan.

Public disillusionment generated by the UK government, coupled with ‘Covid fatigue’ and bitter disappointment over the rise of Omicron in the face of a much needed holiday season, meant that government messaging had been far from good and clear. Plan B does make sense, but not in the context of Omicron, again a foreseeable consequence but unseen by the UK government due its apparent inability to plan.

Alas, the government has no other immediate choice. It designed Plan B believing it would never have to be used, because the steps it took up to and including 19 July were irreversible — dismal planning in itself. It means the government did not anticipate the arrival of another variant of concern like Omicron and, therefore, does not have an effective and workable set of measures to combat it. As a consequence, it is left only with hope, one hope: “Get a booster”.

The UK government’s approach has always been to generate lots of noise. An outrageous, shouty fight has forged the way forward for issues such as Brexit. This issue, and his uniquely crusading campaigning style are the prime reasons for Mr Johnson’s electoral victory in 2019.

The illegal proroguing of parliament provoked a big row. The Supreme Court’s judgment on that proroguing — big row. The protracted, fractious and argumentative Brexit negotiations with the European Union — basically a big, long-running row. The bold proclamations to limit asylum-seeking immigrants — provoked big rows — and all wrapped in a jingoistic, self-aggrandisation of the UK. The use of ‘world-beating’, ‘leading the world’, ‘better than the EU’, ‘more than the EU’, at any and every opportunity. An aggressive, combative, confrontational style, with the aim of making everyone feel uncomfortable and outraged, while the protagonists keep their purpose firmly in their sights. It is like fouling a player to win the ball to score a glorious goal. But this government has ignored the referee, pushing the rules, and testing parliamentary prerogatives and norms to the extreme.

This style of government was taken to a new level with the Owen Paterson affair, and when the Downing Street Parties accusations began, the UK government engaged the only style it knows. Believing a simple side-stepping manoeuvre of the allegations would settle the issue, it ordered all government party MPs to robotically repeat an on-message mantra — no guidelines were broken — to all questions on the matter. It is a strategy proven to work, so that over time, the issue melts away. But it is a strategy to be used with peril in mind: beware one’s enemies.

A combative style collects formidable adversaries and it would appear that Downing Street miscalculated the nature of this attack. It was not a single, decisive, salvo but a slow drip, drip, drip of allegations with incriminating images, each inflicting a small wound to the government’s integrity which combined to do significant damage. Death by a thousand cuts?

It is not dead, yet, but in respect of delivering important public health messaging and carrying the public with it, the UK government has floundered. The North Shropshire by-election is testament to the unease felt by the public regarding the integrity of its government, and it is indicative of doubt in the capability of the Prime Minister to do his job, at a time when leadership is most needed.

We can read the words of the rules and guidelines, but the ease and willingness with which people accept and obey them is based on the government’s messaging. It directly informs how the public feel about the government, and determines how easy or difficult it is to govern the country. To date, the Prime Minister and his government appear to have done all they can to destroy public opinion.

Does the public have trust in its government? Does it believe the government when it speaks? Yes, on both counts, but not as much as it did.

This may seem counter-intuitive. If a government performs poorly or disgracefully then logically, its population should not support or trust it. But the reality is more complex.

The vast majority of people have jobs, and homes, and cars, and families, and art, and science, and interests, and hobbies, and holidays, and nice clothes, and free time, and good food, and good friends, and some of us even have kids! True rebellion means sacrificing, losing or harming some, much or all of this. And while the shape of British society and politics may be heavily criticised at times, the overall outcomes are good or good enough for most people. Risking the disruption or loss of what they have built and accumulated, is not something most people feel passionate about. Therefore, the vast majority will opt for the status quo and cast their vote at the next election — even those who appear to bear a significant grudge against the establishment.

The reality is that the public requires and will follow rules and guidance from a central authority which it believes has a greater view of events than any one individual, and will accept that it provides at least a general direction of travel, even if that authority, guidance or direction is flawed. It will take much more than the sum-total of this government’s conduct and handling of the pandemic to date, to trigger the nation into outright revolt.

Omicron is a challenge which has presented partly out of questionable worldwide management of the pandemic. The UK government is a part of this, in its sometimes incompetent and generally fumbling management of the crisis. But it is the best we have!

Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are following their own path in terms of Covid restrictions, and in England there is to be no change to what has already been announced — mainly because Mr Johnson’s hands are tied by his government, such is the loss of his authority. England remains in Plan B, and so far, this has been good enough. ‘Good enough’ may turn out to be… good enough! We await the future.

And this is the crux. No matter the plan. No matter the messaging. What the public will settle for is ‘good enough’. With so much to lose, there is no other choice.

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The Debate over UK Government Messaging During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Part 3—There be Problems!

The Debate over UK Government Messaging During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Part 3—There be Problems!