Rapidly changing medical guidance challenges Government communications

By Simon Gentry, Newgate Public Affairs

Imagine driving a car, fast, on a slick, wet surface, filled with obstacles.  You can’t slow down because the speed is regulated and whilst you’re driving, the passengers are screaming at you. Someone working closely with senior officials in Government used that analogy to describe what the last five months have felt like to them and the Officials they are working with.  

The science of COVID-19 and the facts on the ground are changing on a day-by-day basis and as a result the Government guidance is changing rapidly and frequently.  Today the Chief Medical Officers extended the period of isolation for people who have symptoms of the disease. This is days after the imposition of 14-day quarantines on people returning from Spain and talk of similar restrictions being placed on people who’ve been to Belgium and Luxembourg where the virus appears to be spreading quickly again.  

Is this a pattern we’ll need to get used to?  It’s a huge challenge for even the most professional communicators if it is.  How the official communications evolve over the next few months and whether they remain effective will be fascinating to watch and learn from.

Number 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office are about to overhaul the whole Government communications infrastructure to make it more coherent and, they hope, easier for the Government to get clear messages to the public in ways that will be understood and can be acted upon.  The view is that currently there are too many communications officers focussed on their departmental priorities rather than the Government’s priorities and Number 10 is determined to change that.  There is a risk that an overly centralised communications operation creates bottlenecks that may become overwhelmed, with important issues outside Number 10’s core interest getting neglected.

Having a sleeker, more focussed communications operation may be one way that the immense challenge of communicating rapidly changing medical advice, more effectively can be achieved.  It will, however, also require the population to listen and do as they are asked.  The war analogy has been overworked, but as we see from the ongoing mask debate, winning public approval is not easy. 

This will require more ‘honest’, ‘levelling with you’ type communicating from Government.  That means they will also have to admit what they don’t know as well as what they do. The relationship between the Government and the electorate is constantly being reframed, this re-framing may need to be more dramatic than most.

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