A virus in itself is not political. It spreads according to laws of science and is untouched by even the most rousing of speeches by a great leader. However, to try to separate politics from the coronavirus crisis is misguided, because, more than ever, it is honesty in the relationship between the government and its people that will empower us to defeat the virus, something that has, regrettably, become sparse in the last few months.
At the start of the UK’s experience with COVID-19, a wave of refreshing consensus swept across our political system, with opposition voices vowing to work constructively with the government. It is difficult to think of a time in the last decade when such cooperation and goodwill could have been so readily found in British politics; even matters of national security often expose political dividing lines. Slowly but surely, however, this consensus has begun to fall apart. Mistakes have been made, clarity in communication is lacking, and if the government refuses to acknowledge this, it is left for others to do so.
The issue in hand is not one of party-political competency. There is no evidence to suggest that, had the Labour Party won last December’s general election, they could have dealt with the substantive challenges of this crisis more effectively than the Conservative government.
However, admitting that mistakes have been made, targets have not been met and some NHS workers remain unprotected is vitally important, and yet our government appears to be utterly incapable of doing so. It is important because shortcomings cannot be addressed until the government admits that they exist. We are told that “now is not the time” to discuss the government’s performance during the past months, but reason would suggest the exact opposite. Robust scrutiny of decision-making is considerably more valuable during a pandemic when adjustments and corrections can be made, and when the testimony of those suffering can be the basis of future decision-making, rather than a retrospective stocktake once the dust has settled. Crucially, a change of strategy cannot be embarked upon until criticism of the exiting one is met with open-mindedness, rather than defensive, empty slogans.
Take “follow the science”. We have been assured that, at every stage of the crisis, the government has (rightly) stuck to the advice of its scientists. Nonetheless, this mantra would be more impressive if it was consistently embraced by those proclaiming it. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) agreed on 3 March that “government should advise against greetings such as shaking hands”. That same day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that he was “shaking hands with everybody”, including coronavirus patients in a hospital he had visited. He was shaking hands again two days later on ITV’s This Morning, as well as four days after that in Westminster Abbey, and yet the government maintains that social distancing decisions were taken at the right time. The majority of people want the government to succeed, but this shameful dishonesty about its own performance thus far will not advance the national interest.
On testing, Matt Hancock’s seemingly random target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April is further evidence that the government’s response focusses largely on sound bites and short-term milestones rather than a long-term plan. The health secretary pledged to test 100,000 “people” per day: the figure for 30 April was just over 70,000, with the widely reported number of 122,347 deriving from tests sent out, yet not all were completed. At the time of writing, the government has failed to meet the target even by its own measure for five consecutive days. It would be foolish to suggest that providing many thousands of brand-new tests to people around the country is easy, and Mr Hancock must be commended for his efforts in increasing capacity rapidly. Even so, trust in the government will soon begin to slip if they do not confront their own failings and end this period of blind deflection of all criticism. With the prime minister setting a new target of 200,000 tests per day by the end of May, why should we trust that this will be maintained beyond the final day of the month, unlike the previous target?
Looking forward, the main priority of the government from a communications point of view must be to leave no room for doubt or misinterpretation. As we approach the easing of lockdown, it is the responsibility of Boris Johnson and his cabinet to effectively communicate both the letter and the spirit of the changes they make to the rules. At the time of writing prior to the PM’s Sunday 10 May statement, speculation is rife in the press; “HAPPY MONDAY” (The Sun); “HURRAH! LOCKDOWN FREEDOM BECKONS” (Daily Mail); “EASING PLAN REVEALED, FROM MONDAY TO OCTOBER” (Daily Mirror). So far, no official information on lockdown easing has been released. The government must learn that at this crucial moment it and it alone has the authority to inform the public on the path ahead. More information is better than less, and its publication sooner is better than later. These front pages reveal the extent to which off-the-record briefings have become a centrepiece of Westminster politics, and that if they are ever to stop, it must be now. Our constitution itself is also being tested , with the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland announcing their own exit strategy, leaving a vacuum of information in England; nations should cooperate on both epidemiological and communication strategies if the virus is to be beaten in every corner of the UK. If the government wants to save lives, it must not use rumour and speculation to test the water before each new decision is made, but rather end the confusion by having the courage of its convictions to detect public unease and act accordingly with unequivocal instructions. Always following the science, of course.
No government, politician or civilian is perfect, and people recognise that. However, what many do not recognise or respect is a government that talks of “success”, while mistakes remain unaddressed and mixed messaging continues. Science alone will not beat coronavirus, and must be coupled with integrity, clarity, and honesty in communication, to take the British public fully with the government on its chosen path to recovery, whatever that may be.
Image: Jaggery via Geograph