Ian Monk: Take it easy on the panic button

The Health Secretary is warning that the NHS is under mortal threat from a pandemic. Not swine flu but a pandemic of panic about swine flu.

Ian Monk
Ian Monk

The NHS is being pushed to breaking point by the enquiries of millions of people fearful of catching flu.

There is a comms irony here that would be exquisite were it not for the fact that lives are probably at stake. For this Gadarene panic has been prompted by the very media messages aimed at averting a swine flu crisis. Instead of managing a crisis, communicators have unwittingly caused one.

Those who might naturally have taken a sanguine attitude to the new bug are bombarding doctors and hospitals with their fears. Their anxiety and hypochondria is driven by incessant and often confused messages from the Government and NGOs.

You'd be mad not to panic, is the subtext to much of it. Headlines imply Armageddon. Schools may shut. Pregnant mothers should stay at home. Stay home if you sneeze in the morning. Stockpiles of Tamiflu are under armed guard.

Sixteen people have died in the UK. Most had other underlying health problems. Flu has always caused deaths. This is not the Black Death. All this plays a part in the narrative. But in the politics of panic it is drowned out by the cacophony of comms noise emphasising the threat.

Communicators seem partly motivated by a desire to tick every possible warning box in a litigious age. Certainly no-one will ever sue the Government for not warning of the risks. But the panic button has been hit too hard. Hordes of fit but desperately worried individuals are storming the gates of the NHS.

The UK is virtually alone in driving this level of frenzy among its citizens. According to the BBC, in the US, Australia and most of Europe information is disseminated calmly and life goes on.

The UK media are addicted to crisis. But are key communicators acting responsibly in feeding this addiction? Might it be time for a period of silence?

- Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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