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Michael Gove can’t project a clear coronavirus message – no wonder the public is losing faith in the government

Ministers getting tied in knots over statements that could come back to bite them is just one of the problems the prime minister faces

Andrew Grice
Sunday 17 May 2020 12:27 BST
Michael Gove contradicts himself moments after 'guaranteeing' teachers will be safe at school

A week after Boris Johnson’s clumsy, confusing announcement on easing the coronavirus lockdown, the government is still tying itself in knots as it tries to explain the rules to the public.

Today it was Michael Gove’s turn, an ominous sign for Johnson since the Cabinet Office minister is one of the most assured media performers in government. Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show he could guarantee it was safe for teachers to go back to schools but then admitted: “The only way ever to ensure that you never catch coronavirus is to stay at home completely. There’s always, always, always in any loosening of these restrictions a risk of people catching the coronavirus.”

He went on to argue that staying at home, like life in general, involves managing other risks. While insisting it was extremely unlikely any school would be the source of an outbreak, he added that “if, for any reason, there are risks we can take steps to mitigate them”.

Gove’s words, while commendably honest, are unlikely to reassure teachers and parents worried about the phased return for schools planned from 1 June. True, Gove could not have justified his initial guarantee if pressed. The next question would have been: “How do you know?” During tricky media interviews, politicians need to look round corners. It might have flashed through Gove’s mind that if one teacher contracted Covid-19 next month, his guarantee would have been thrown back at him.

But by conceding that staying at home is inevitably safer than staying alert, the government’s new mantra in England, Gove might have unwittingly encouraged teachers and parents to do the opposite of what ministers want. (He urged teachers to “look to your responsibilities” because children “only have one chance for an education”). His muddle epitomises Johnson’s Herculean communications task on the long road back to something approaching normality.

The prime minister acknowledged the public’s frustration – and by implication his own – in an article for The Mail on Sunday. “I recognise what we are now asking is more complex than simply staying at home, but this is a complex problem,” he wrote.

Although he spelt out England’s new social-distancing rules, Johnson took refuge in fuzzy concepts, saying the public’s “fortitude, perseverance, good common sense” and desire to return to the freedoms it holds dear had allowed the government to inch forwards.

Some Johnson allies, worried about the lockdown’s economic cost, want him to give a stronger lead about the need for people to return to work, arguing Britons would follow because they have supported him throughout the crisis.

Yet this weekend’s opinion polls suggest otherwise, and will make worrying reading in a Downing Street operation which pores over such surveys and focus groups. It is worried that, while the prime minister is popular, support for his approach is falling because the overall package is not trusted.

For the first time, more people (49 per cent) believe the government is handling the crisis poorly rather than well (47 per cent), according to YouGov.

Only 38 per cent of people believe the new rules are clear, while 60 per cent think they are unclear. Some 54 per cent believe the changes go too far in relaxing the rules, with 29 per cent saying they are about right and only 8 per cent saying they do not go far enough – suggesting those ministers and Tory backbenchers clamouring for a swifter easing are out of step with public opinion.

Crucially, some 73 per cent think the public needs detailed guidance, with only 23 per cent believing people need only basic guidance and should “use their common sense to stop the spread of coronavirus”.

Johnson should take note; “good common sense” is not a policy, and is not enough. People want and need a much clearer, sharper message.

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