The Student
If communication is key during a crisis, then why isn’t the UK doing it better?
by Tom Humphreys, 8/10/20

As the number of COVID-19 cases rises, increasing numbers of cities across the UK are put under local lockdown and restrictions are once again introduced. But even the most cursory reading of these guidelines demonstrates that they are openly contradictory, and they are indicative of another epidemic that is plaguing the nation: confusion.  

As a resident of Manchester, we have been under a local lockdown since August, yet in that time, the restrictions that govern our interactions have not been clarified. For instance, I can meet with only 5 other people from outside of my household; except if the occasion is a wedding or a funeral, in which case I can meet with 29 other people. Furthermore, I cannot leave the Manchester area, except if I need a test, in which case I can travel up to 75 miles away to receive one. Other inconsistencies exist, but this article can only be so long.

But while pointing out these inadequacies has seemingly become a strange pastime for many, it is nevertheless alarming and counterproductive that these ambiguities exist, as it leaves them open to interpretation. For instance, if I can be symptomatic and travel 75 miles away for a test, then why can’t I travel 75 miles away, while healthy, to another city for recreation? Likewise, why are weddings exempt but not birthday parties? The cynic in me would argue that you only turn 21 once, but marriage can always end in divorce.  

So, are these just poor policies? Perhaps they are, as they seem to satisfy everyone’s needs while simultaneously satisfying no one’s. But let’s assume that they would work, why aren’t they? Well, herein lies the problem: we don’t understand them or their reasoning. Ultimately, how can we follow instructions that we don’t understand? Perhaps we need to rethink how these policies are communicated to us.

But why would this be important? Communication is not a treatment nor an effective and logical policy, both of which would have a more direct effect on the virus, so why should we care about how information is delivered to us? It is because communication is a powerful tool that may not cure us of the disease but, done correctly, it might reduce its spread. And globally we have seen the importance of this non-medical intervention, as countries that were ranked as being “highly prepared” when faced with a pandemic (UK and USA), have struggled to control their outbreaks, while those that were ranked more lowly have known fewer infections and have been heralded for their response and especially for how they were able to mobilise their populaces. Now this correlation is certainly no indicator of causality, but it nevertheless suggests that a factor independent of medical infrastructure plays an active role in controlling infection rates. 

So, what has earnt these “lesser prepared” countries so much praise? Firstly, clarity has been an ever-present component of their communications. New Zealand has been exemplary in this regard, with their Prime Minister giving clear instructions and easy-to-understand alert systems from the beginning, and inviting its Health Director General to press conferences to answer questions requiring medical expertise. Germany and Sweden have also adopted the same strategy, using their own relevant scientists and physicians to the same end, providing legitimacy to restrictions. But the messages themselves are not the sole determinant of their success, as the manner in which they were delivered has also been found to be important. Denmark and Norway, for instance, are two countries that emphatically communicated their messages, to inspire trust and to instill a sense of social responsibility amongst their citizens, which has proven effective. 

But returning to home, where are we going wrong? According to the research, the UK government’s communication methods are entirely opposed to those that have been proven to be effective. They are not clear or transparent, and they encourage a “shame” culture where people feel as though they should follow guidelines for fear of social embarrassment, rather than because they feel that they have a responsibility towards their community. Case studies have shown that this will get us nowhere quickly – so let’s change our approach. The government should learn from those countries that have been successful in controlling the pandemic, to better control it here. Presenting clear messages on effective policies from subject experts in a way that resonates with everyone will be a large step forward in our management of the pandemic, and it might just help curb the severity of the second wave, before we get too deep.

Image: Phillip Mallis via Flickr