Is the Government failing to get a ‘grip’ on the coronavirus crisis comms?

In a crisis, when he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair prized one quality above all else – what he called ‘grip’.

Get a 'grip' on the crisis comms around coronavirus, urges  John Mcternan
Get a 'grip' on the crisis comms around coronavirus, urges John Mcternan

He used that word to describe the combination of being on top of the issue and ahead of the public that showed the government was doing its job and governing well.

Yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a press conference on the coronavirus outbreak, flanked by the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser.

The event – to accompany the publication of the Government’s coronavirus action plan – was a signal that the UK is now well into a major public health crisis.

There were three key elements to ‘grip’: judged by them, how is Johnson’s Government doing?

The first element is being ‘out in front’ of an issue.

In crisis comms, as is well known, ‘speed kills’ – rapid response doesn’t guarantee reputation, but it keeps you in the game.

It is now more than a month since the first UK patients were diagnosed with COVID-19 and two months since China alerted the World Health Organization to the outbreak of a new form of pneumonia in Wuhan.

While the largest outbreaks outside China have so far been in Italy, Iran and South Korea, the Johnson Government has known this is a highly infectious disease and that it was coming to the UK, and has been slow to articulate an official response.

The second strand is transparency – which isn’t a requirement for full disclosure.

I know well, from my time in the Blair government, that revealing all the detailed contingency planning for SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) would have spooked the public.

But skimpy hardly starts to describe the statement from the Prime Minister yesterday – 421 words, of which nearly a quarter were about hand-washing.

The published ‘plan’ was no better – generalities, even though there is clearly a well-worked-out response for scenarios up to the reasonable worst-case planning assumptions.

A weakness which was exposed when, by midnight – following an enquiry from the BBC – the government announced it would be making Coronavirus a notifiable disease, giving employers an ability to claim costs from insurance. This wasn’t mentioned in the plan, though it must have been contemplated.

Skimpy hardly starts to describe the statement from the Prime Minister yesterday – 421 words, of which nearly a quarter is about hand washing.
John McTernan, senior adviser at BCW Global and former adviser to Tony Blair

The problem with such a thin response is not the initial reception.

The Prime Minister and his newly elected Government are being given the benefit of the doubt by voters, while journalists have process to report on and speculation to indulge in – plenty of copy, in other words.

The challenge is that without well-worked-through scenarios – and a shared understanding of the facts and the science – is that ministers are unable to deliver the third essential of grip: consistency.

The way that the Prime Minister skated over questions lightly suggested that he was not fully across all the details at yesterday’s press conference.

But he had his experts with him. And anyway, the real ministerial lead should come from Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health.

Unfortunately, two of the key statements Hancock made to the BBC on Sunday were contradicted by the government’s advisers.

COVID-19 doesn’t have a mortality rate comparable to seasonal flu, as he told Andrew Marr – it is 10 to 20 times deadlier.

As seriously, the Government is not going to be locking down UK cities as the Chinese did in Wuhan.

So far, the Government has faltered at the earliest and easiest part of this crisis – communicating the well-established plans that are in place – but it has placed clear, scientific advice that will be at the heart of how it adapts those plans to the fast-moving spread of a new virus.

It is in all our interests that the Government learns from its missteps, and gets a strong grip both on strategy and communications.

John McTernan is a senior adviser at BCW Global and a former adviser to Tony Blair

Thumbnail pic credit: FRANK AUGSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

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