England & Wales, Scotland

High stakes: getting the Covid-19 messaging right

Photo by iMattSmart on Unsplash

This is how the Guardian reported the UK government’s announcement last week of the proposed new tiers system for England:

“On Merseyside the leaders felt they had done all they could to have become the first English region to leave the strictest coronavirus measures introduced six weeks ago. The Liverpool city region has now been moved down to tier 2.

Meanwhile, the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, grimly expected yet another dose of punishment for 2.8 million people who have been unable to see loved ones indoors for a period of four months. Manchester was put back into tier 3”.

The language of punishment – and its corollary, blame – is surely unhelpful in this context? To some extent, it reflects increasing political tensions around the measures to manage the second wave – between the UK government and regional mayors, between and within political parties, between the UK government and the devolved administrations (though that seems to have lessened – for now).

Being put in a higher tier is extremely hard, for example, for the local hospitality industry, and it is to be expected that some of those affected would indeed see it as being punished when they have carried out all the safety measures required or they are in part of a tier 3 area which has low infections. But the area isn’t being punished either by a malevolent government or because its residents have not played the game. Greater Manchester remained in the highest tier even though its infection rate was falling faster than that of any other part of England because it remained in a more difficult position than Liverpool and the numbers of cases among older people were significantly higher there than in the rest of the country.

The government hasn’t always helped its case – the public dispute with Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, several weeks ago, could make it appear that Manchester was indeed being punished. More recently the health secretary, Matt Hancock, implied Greater Manchester was partly to blame for the tier 3 decision when he said infection rates in the region had climbed while negotiations were taking place and that had been “bad for public health”.

Speaking to the Health and Social Care Committee, Hancock explained why there hadn’t been negotiations in the imposing of the new tiers;

“The reason we are doing it differently is whilst in most cases when we negotiated with most areas in the previous tiered arrangement, we had a high quality discussion which led to better outcomes – a case in point is Liverpool, where the case rate has fallen by over two-thirds in the last three weeks… Unfortunately that wasn’t the case in all local areas.”

Does any of this matter – the use of language and the implied accusation of blame? Yes, I believe it does – language does matter. How messages are constructed and communicated matters very much if any government wants its citizens to comply with difficult measures – and ones that seem to change all the time. It is not surprising that some people and businesses in Greater Manchester feel they are being targeted unfairly. Greater Manchester was the first region to be placed under local lockdown: the rules came into force on 30 July and the region has been under restrictions ever since. Getting a clear message across to its residents about why the area is in a particular tier is critical.

We have recently published briefings on the need for clear communications on the pandemic, locally and nationally. And we published a paper as part of our Post-Covid Councils project on building trust:

In times of uncertainty, conditions and understanding can change rapidly. At this juncture, we must be able to trust that best available evidence is being used, that good decisions are (mostly) being made, and that course corrections happen quickly when new evidence comes to light.

It is clear that local government has been better than central government in getting important messages across (and indeed in managing the complex response to the pandemic, compared to the top down and centralised approach of the UK government which we have commented on throughout the pandemic).

By focusing on clear, understandable and straightforward messages, not only do local authorities ensure that diverse audiences can understand the information and what to do as a result, but they also increase their own credibility. A lack of credibility and trust not only hinders adherence to important messages, but – as we are seeing nationally – it allows room for alternative information (or misinformation) to flourish. Where individuals and groups do not find the relevant authority credible, they will turn to other sources that are relevant to them.  – LGIU briefing on local communications

Talking about the measures to contain the virus in terms of blame and punishment does nothing to get important messages across to the public. It is an example of how messaging can be harmful, and is only one of several examples. The imminent availability of a vaccine has been enormously encouraging, but the virus isn’t disappearing overnight, and it will be more important than ever to get the communications right. The audience includes people concerned about possible safety who could be susceptible to the arguments of extreme anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. We know there will be some resistance to having the vaccine.

The issue of misinformation arising where national communications have failed to meet the necessary criteria has been a significant challenge throughout Covid-19. Where communications are not felt to be relevant to particular groups, where they are communicated by bodies who feel remote to or have lost the trust of their audience, where communications are issued in a way that is difficult to understand or access by large numbers, and is seen to be inconsistent and regularly changing, it is unsurprising to find that people turn to others that they trust, and seek to create their own narrative and to interpret any ‘rules’ in their own way (or not at all).

There has been a gradual erosion of trust of government messaging on Covid-19 with over-promising, inconsistent timing and conflicting messages (like this). Local authorities understand their communities, and how the different audiences locally will receive key information. Given the loss of confidence in national health communications by some of the public, it is even more crucial that local communications are accessible, relevant and credible.

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