'Micromanagement on steroids': comms pros react after NHS told to toe Government's Brexit line

NHS England and other arms-length bodies (ALBs) overseen by the Department of Health and Social Care have been warned to stick to the script when it comes to Brexit, according to a leaked DHSC memo.

NHS: told to toe the line (pic credit: Sean Gladwell/Mediaphotos/Getty Images)
NHS: told to toe the line (pic credit: Sean Gladwell/Mediaphotos/Getty Images)

It stated that the organisations will be sent Downing Street’s "top lines from the core EU exit script" in a weekly email.

"Please can you use this script to ensure that all comms you are compiling are aligned to this script before sending them to DHSC for clearance," the memo said.

It was sent out in the middle of August this year and emphasised that "whatever the circumstances" Britain will leave the EU on 31 October, according to details reported in the Health Service Journal.

Cracking the whip

The latest move to exert central control over the Brexit comms of wider government comes just months after it emerged that ALBs were having to run any form of comms relating to Brexit – ranging from text or tweets to emails or phone calls – to DHSC for clearance. And in some cases being referred to ministers and the Department of Exiting the European Union for approval.

ALBs that fall under DHSC’s remit include NHS England, Care Quality Commission, NHS Improvement, Public Health England and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

Damaging confrontation

The sensitivities over Brexit comms were recently highlighted by a bitter row between Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, and Dr David Nicholl, a consultant neurologist who helped write the medical section of the Government’s Operation Yellowhammer report into the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the NHS.

Rees-Mogg accused Dr Nicholl of scaremongering when the medical expert raised the issue of patient deaths.

Commenting on the DHSC memo on Brexit comms, Kristina Wilcock, former assistant head of external comms at NHS Digital, told PRWeek: "This looks like micromanagement on steroids coming from No 10."

Writing in a comment piece today, she added the attempts to dictate how NHS and other arms-length bodies of DHSC communicate Brexit-related issues may be easier said than done. 

"NHS England... hasn’t been afraid to bite back when short-term political ambition is detrimental to long-term planning or funding." 

There could be some "accidental" breaking of the rules. "That might be around telling patients and those who help care for them what they need to know as Brexit approaches in some shape or form. Or more pointedly, it might be not telling them something prescribed by a Spad in pursuit of votes with little regard for reality," Wilcock said.

Integrity cannot be compromised

PR professionals "have a duty to be objective and impartial about the impact of policy decisions on hospitals and patients", according to Emma Leech, CIPR president.

"This is not about politics – NHS Trusts have a responsibility to build relationships with the public through meaningful and trustworthy communication. It is therefore essential that the public understand the true impact of policy decisions on Brexit," she said.  

"NHS communicators cannot be expected to compromise their professional integrity by relaying political messages to the public," Leech added.

Inside view

But one senior government health comms figure, speaking under condition of anonymity, argued that the control from the centre over Brexit issues was necessary – not least to prevent mass panic.

"It is the fear that people would launch their own campaigns saying ‘don’t stockpile’, when the national evidence said that this would result in precisely that, and therefore we’d create a national panic."

They commented: "That was part of the reason for saying we need central sign-off, to send that message across the system."

In a statement, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "We are committed to preparing the  entire health and care system for Brexit on 31 October and that includes ensuring our ALBs have the latest and most accurate information from central government when communicating with the public."  

They added: "Government departments routinely review external messaging of their ALBs and this is part of well-established assurance processes."

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