Yesterday I appeared on Al Jazeera News discussing the Prime Minister’s speech to the nation after nearly two months of lockdown.
Rarely if ever has a Ministerial Broadcast been so keenly awaited. All week the national media had been speculating wildly about what Boris Johnson was going to announce on Sunday, culminating in a raft of over-optimistic headlines on Friday. When the Prime Minister first announced lockdown measures on 23rd March over 27 million people tuned in, making it one of the most watched television broadcasts in UK history. The viewing figures for yesterday’s broadcast are likely to be even higher.
It was a huge moment for the Prime Minister and the government, but I am sorry to say that in many respects it was a missed opportunity.
There were praiseworthy elements. The Prime Minister was measured and statesmanlike in his presentation. There was much less of the bonhomie and florid language for which Boris is renowned, but which has occasionally felt jarringly off-key during this crisis.
But, simply put, when we needed clarity, we got confusion.
At the start of the lockdown the messaging was clear – Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives – and that played a massively important role in helping the nation to do the right thing. As we move on to the next stage the messaging inevitably becomes more complicated. We need to keep the rate of infection below 1 (which must of course include tackling inspection hotspots in care homes and other areas), whilst also slowly restarting the economy. We need to encourage those who really need to, such as the seriously ill, to make use of NHS services. And we need to consider the overall wellbeing of people across the country – those of us who are separated from family and loved ones, who are worried about their livelihoods and are deeply uncertain about what the future holds.
These are complex challenges, but it is vital that the advice the government provides remains clear and readily comprehensible. Yesterday’s announcement was sorely lacking in specificity. Many of the questions people have been asking for weeks were left unanswered. There was no further guidance on wearing facemasks. There was no information on meeting up with family members who are not in the same household. The advice for people who cannot work from home to return to their workplaces – from the very next day – was lacking in any detail.
I’m sad to say it was a statement that begged many more questions than it answered.
Most worryingly it introduced a disparity in the guidance between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Regional variations in the spread of Covid-19 absolutely necessitate some flexibility in the response to the virus. But the risks posed by differing messages from Westminster and the devolved governments are already being seen in the few short hours since the PM’s speech. The key messages prior to the announcement were clear and were clearly meant for the entire nation. That appears to no longer be the case. Unclear guidance is harder to follow, and if a message isn’t clear it’s a lot easier to ignore.
It genuinely seems as though the government has forgotten some of its own best practice when it comes to big announcements. Under normal circumstance a briefing document would be published shortly before a major government announcement, and the subsequent speech would provide the opportunity to highlight and reinforce the key points. This would have been the sensible way to approach the challenge of modifying the key messages we have been adhering to for the past weeks. On this occasion the order was the wrong way around and it has sadly, but inevitably, led to even greater confusion at a time when people and businesses are crying out for some certainty about the road ahead.Hopefully, the new guidance notes will address some of these concerns.
Of course, we should not underestimate the size of the challenge. The Prime Minister and the whole of government have a huge and unenviable task at hand, and I sincerely wish them well in meeting it. Clear and coherent messaging mustcontinue to play a vital role in helping us all to safely negotiate the challenges ahead. This first step in the next stage on our journey was a misstep in terms of communication, but I hope the coming days will bring more clarity and certainty for us all.