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Messaging mess

Alison Johnstone laments the failure of governments to give clear and consistent messages on the coronavirus pandemic.

Alison Johnstone MSP
Alison Johnstone MSP

As difficult as lockdown is, the reasons for doing it are clear. As former chief medical officer Sir Harry Burns indicated last week, even though we have not been testing and tracing cases at the scale I would have liked, at least we have been isolating from one another to restrict the spread of this highly infectious and potentially deadly virus.

The reasons for it are obvious, but what has been far, far less clear is what the UK Government means by lockdown.
From the beginning of this crisis, businesses have struggled to understand whether they are deemed ‘essential’ or not, workers have been asked to put themselves at risk and police have struggled to interpret guidance which appears to allow crowds outside food takeaways but not solitary sunbathing.

Now, to make matters worse, the advice to ‘Stay at Home’ has been shifted to ‘Stay Alert’. That is, for England only, because governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have stuck with the message people actually understand.

The Prime Minister’s vague message has left many able to interpret advice the way they want, and has brought severe criticism from all corners, including the Trades Union Congress, the London Chamber of Commerce and even Piers Morgan – unity among those voices is quite a feat from Boris Johnson.

At Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Boris Johnson insisted that he had to issue his new guidance and advice to the nation on Sunday so that “people could be ready for Monday”.

Monday came, and no one could explain what his five-tier warning system meant. In London, tube trains were full of people in a place where social distancing is virtually impossible. These people may well have been ‘alert’, but they certainly weren’t safe.

It was clear why he waited until Sunday to give his mixed messages. His solitary broadcast meant he faced no questions or scrutiny. Yet on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday ‘sources at Number 10’ briefed journalists off-the-record. This led to newspaper headlines like ‘Freedom beckons!’ on the day that the UK became the worst in Europe for COVID-19 deaths per capita.

This kind of rumour-mill approach to government messaging isn’t just reckless, in a public health crisis, it’s downright dangerous. We are led to question what the Prime Minister’s priorities are, let alone what he wants and expects citizens to do.

One of his first statements on the pandemic was that “many more families are going to lose loved ones”, and on Sunday he said “it could have been a catastrophe”. For the families of the nearly 32,000 who have died in the UK, it most certainly has been.

I hope we do not see more people forced to put themselves in danger by going to work. As things stand it is hard enough keeping our key workers safe. The last thing we need is a mass return to work when they are dealing with this virus in our hospitals and care homes, sometimes without the protective equipment to keep them safe or the testing to stop them spreading the virus.

The message must remain clear: keep yourself and others safe. Stay at home. Do not meet others. Only leave home to maintain physical and mental health, or for essential journeys such as food shopping and doctor’s visits. If we can’t expect clear communication and leadership from the Prime Minister, it will be solidarity in our communities that will get us through this difficult time.