Boris Johnson is running out of time to get his coronavirus message right – and things will only get harder

The latest pithy slogan has not been received well, and we are now at a crucial point where clarity is key. Perhaps Downing Street needs to think like this is an election

Andrew Grice
Sunday 02 August 2020 19:57
Boris Johnson ‘orders preparations to avoid second national lockdown’

During the full national lockdown, ministers were delighted with the success of their “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” slogan. Indeed, some joked that it was “too successful”, as many people were reluctant to return to pubs, restaurants and workplaces when restrictions were eased.

Now Boris Johnson desperately needs a simple new message after making three U-turns: curbing foreign travel to Spain and Luxembourg; banning two households mixing in the north of England; and postponing planned relaxation of measures, including for weddings, bowling alleys, casinos, indoor theatres and concerts.

The prime minister tried but failed to conjure up a credible slogan at his Downing Street press conference on Friday, saying repeatedly, “hands, face, space”. He meant we should wash our hands, cover our face, and make space between us and other people. It probably sounded better when rehearsed in front of the mirror.

Of course, it just had to have three components, after “take back control” and “get Brexit done”. But the new one didn’t fly into the headlines as Johnson might have hoped. Media outlets realised that this was a pivotal moment; in an attempt to prevent a second spike, the easing has in effect gone into reverse, and his hopes of lifting restrictions by November have collapsed.

True, No 10 has had the communications task from hell after “stay at home” was inevitably replaced by more nuanced messages as the lockdown eased. Isaac Levido, the Australian strategist who ran Johnson’s successful election campaign last December, was recalled to Downing Street in March to fine-tune the message on the coronavirus outbreak, and helped to produce the “stay at home” slogan.

“The reason why it was so effective is because it was basically shorthand for the government strategy,” he told The Times this weekend. Crucially, he conceded that part of the reason the public did stay home was that they were “still seeing lots of people dying on the news”.

Local and now regional differences make the communications task even more daunting. But the government has not helped itself. Although sudden U-turns are inevitable in such a crisis, there have been too many contradictory signals from ministers, notably on face coverings – whether masks helped to contain the spread of the virus, when people should wear them, and in ministers’ own decisions on wearing them when they were liable to be photographed.

Ministers now blame the upsurge in infections on people failing to stick to social distancing rules – in their homes, rather than in the pub or at work – as well as their old favourite of “Europe” because of the “second wave” in parts of the continent.

Yet the public can’t be blamed for failing to decipher the fuzzy, mixed messages. As Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association’s council, told a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into the coronavirus last week: “Do you think any member of the public understands what ‘one metre plus’ means? What does the ‘plus’ mean? Many don’t really understand this because it’s not clear and they’re not social distancing.”

A study by University College London (UCL) found that nine out of 10 people understood the rules during the national lockdown, but there was “much poorer comprehension” once it was relaxed. Today, fewer than half of adults (45 per cent) in England report broad understanding of the rules (with only 14 per cent understanding them “very much”), compared with 61 per cent in Wales and 75 per cent in Scotland. Younger adults are less likely to understand the rules than older people, perhaps because it is harder to apply them to their more complex life scenarios and because they follow the news less than older people.

Daisy Fancourt, an associate professor at UCL, said: “The general drop-off in understanding could be due to unclear messaging from the government, or a reduction in interest and engagement from people, especially with the cessation of the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing in late June.” There will be daily on-camera briefings by Johnson’s new spokesperson, but not until the autumn and no one has been recruited yet.

With the clouds darkening again, there is a strong case to bring back daily briefings by ministers and their scientific advisers. The virus doesn’t respect August, so the government can’t afford to switch off. It should be honest with the public about the trade-offs needed to prevent a second spike, as Johnson and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, commendably were at Friday’s press conference.

The communications challenge is going to get even harder. The Sunday papers suggested that Johnson war-gamed scenarios last week, including a lockdown for London with a border at the M25, asking many more of the over-50s to stay home, extending nationally the curbs on households meeting, and quarantining all arrivals for 14 days. Ominously, another scenario in the planning session was a rise in infections in the northwest, which came true just two hours after it was war-gamed.

No doubt the best brains in Downing Street are working overtime on refining the message. Perhaps they should imagine they are in a referendum or election campaign. Over to you, Dominic.

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