BMA and Government engaged in 'attritional war', says DH director of comms

The Government is engaged in an "attritional war" with the British Medical Association in the long-running junior doctors' dispute, according to Sam Lister, director of comms at the Department of Health.

Lister was speaking yesterday at PRWeek's PR360 Global Festival on the subject of the Government's comms response to the Ebola crisis in 2014, but confessed: "Forgive me that my brain is slightly immersed in another particular crisis that the Department of Health is dealing with this week."

On Tuesday and Wednesday, junior doctors staged two walk-outs, the fifth and sixth this year in an ongoing row over changes to pay and conditions.

He later went on to draw parallels between dealing with the Ebola outbreak and the doctors’ dispute. He referred to himself in the third person as he said: "Some crises do go on for a long time – he says, reflecting on the attritional war with the British Medical Association at the moment – but these things take a real toll on teams."

When it comes to facing a crisis, comms teams should be prepared to "rip up your rule book", he said. In the case of Ebola, the Government’s plan ran into hundreds of pages, Lister added.

But there was a key change in approach when "we decided quite late in the day in our planning that we would get the chief medical officer to go out and say publicly that there would be a handful of cases". That represented a shift from the mindset of "we will protect everybody and this won’t happen", to "it will happen", Lister said.

The move was not without risks, he admitted: "It was not initially our approach, which was a slightly more defensive one, where we said it wouldn’t happen, or was very unlikely, and we would do everything we could to stop it, and it could have raised the temperature up – actually it didn’t, and was reported very responsibility."

However, communications were compromised by the need to protect patient confidentiality, according to Lister: "One of the things that we couldn’t talk about was patient confidentiality related issues, so we had a bit of a communications vacuum."

He added: "It was quite difficult to rebut misunderstandings, because you couldn’t tell them what the true situation was, you just had to say ‘can’t go into that’ so it allowed some of the rumour mill to kick around."

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