Will people pivot from ‘diktat to discretion’ on 'Freedom Day' with the Government’s message on masks?

In a televised address watched by more than 45 million people on Monday evening, Boris Johnson set out steps to reopen England from lockdown, which included abolishing legal requirements on wearing masks and social distancing along with a seismic shift in the Government’s central health message on COVID-19 from “universal diktat to personal responsibility”.

From diktat to personal responsibility but will Freedom Day come at an unacceptable cost? (pic credit: Getty)
From diktat to personal responsibility but will Freedom Day come at an unacceptable cost? (pic credit: Getty)

The Prime Minister explained the continuing progress of the vaccination roll-out and its impact on the worst effects of the pandemic, and said the country had come to a point where it must balance the risks of COVID-19 with those of continuing legal restrictions, which took an “inevitable toll” on the physical and financial health of the UK.

“If we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks – when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holiday – then when will be able to return to normal?” he said.

The alternatives to a summer reopening, Johnson said, was to do so in winter – when the virus would spread more easily and the NHS would already be under pressure – or else not to do so this year.

In choosing a summer reopening, the Prime Minister set out how England would now move toward living with COVID-19 in its midst, albeit with protections in place, and said he would “allow people to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus”.

‘Significant risk’

However, his strategy comes with “significant risk”, according to the Government’s own SAGE advisory group, which published a document ahead of the press conference calling for “keeping some level of measures” in place throughout the summer to decrease transmission of the virus.

At the press conference, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's chief scientific adviser, presented data showing that new cases of the virus had risen to a daily average of 25,000, mostly among young people but increasingly in older demographics, too. There has been a smaller accompanying rise in hospitalisations and deaths – both of which are expected to increase as daily cases rise to a projected level of 100,000.

Masks messaging

The Government’s message on mask-wearing has also pivoted from a position of enforcement to personal choice at a stroke.

Johnson said that, although the Government would end the legal obligation to wear face coverings, “guidance will suggest where you might choose to do so” – including on crowded public transport.

Both Vallance and England's chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, set out circumstances in which they would wear masks, which included a crowded indoor place, if they were asked by an authority to do so, or if someone else was uncomfortable with them not wearing one.

But is a public that has largely complied with unprecedented state interventions into how they live their lives for more than a year ready to absorb a more nuanced – arguably more ambiguous – message on how to manage COVID-19?

The Prime Minister said there was a big difference between travelling on a packed Tube in the rush hour and a taking a journey late at night on a “near-empty” mainline train.

Pressed by some journalists at the press conference as to whether his message to the public on masks was reckless, Johnson insisted that he wanted people to “exercise their personal responsibility, but remember the value of face coverings in protecting themselves and others”.

The planned full reopening and the end of restrictions in England is being billed as ‘Freedom Day’, but these freedoms could come with a high cost.

Now, comms professionals from a range of backgrounds assess the Government’s step-change in public health messaging and how that will play out.

Jess Wash, managing director, healthcare, Hill+Knowlton Strategies London

Jess Walsh
Jess Walsh

At a moment where hospitalisation and transmission rates are on the rise and the vaccines programme still needs our active participation, I think the Government is delivering a message that seems to jar with the previous commitment to be guided by data not dates. The change in leadership of the health ministry offered a moment to strengthen that message and recommit to being evidence-led, clear and united in our support for those at highest risk while we keep a careful eye on variants. Instead, we hear about the invented concept of Freedom Day, which positions the so-called ‘restrictions’ as somehow taking away our individual rights.

What if, instead of taking about 'restrictions' and 'freedom', we talked about how we made a series of common-sense adjustments to a very uncommon and dangerous threat to public health? The positioning of public health behaviour change is important; showing people the positive results of their life-preserving actions – distancing where possible, opening windows, wearing a mask – instead of focusing on a polarised 'freedom versus restriction' narrative would feel a lot more genuine.

Alex Davies, senior director, Hanover Communications

Alex Davies
Alex Davies

Ironically, the most important message in that press conference was the one that was underplayed and underused – the reason why we shouldn’t wait until autumn is that any exit wave would then be pushed into the time of the year when the NHS is most vulnerable. By unlocking over the summer, any rise in hospitalisations becomes significantly more manageable. This is the message the Government should push the hardest because it’s the scientific one, not the political one. It takes the anger out of the debate and appeals to the logical majority.

Kathryn Ager, head of health, Grayling

Kathryn Ager
Kathryn Ager

As we move into what we hope will be the final stage of COVID-19, the Government faces arguably its trickiest communications challenge to date. After months of legally enforceable ‘dos and don’ts’, we are moving into a phase where choice and personal responsibility will become the norm. We are being asked to determine not only what level of risk we personally are comfortable with, but to consider others when making our decisions.

Face masks are one example of a potentially divisive behaviour, with even scientists and medics not necessarily in total agreement. Government messaging will need to reflect this, emphasising individual choice but reminding people to consider and respect the choices of others, whose circumstances and appetite for risk may be different. So far the messaging from government has been all about learning to live with COVID-19. Just as important might be learning to live with other people and COVID-19.

Daniel Reynolds, director of comms, NHS Confederation

Daniel Reynolds
Daniel Reynolds

Lifting the remaining restrictions is a gamble and that’s why the Government needs to be clear with the public on when and where they are advised to continue to wear masks. It may not be a legal requirement, but individual behaviour on mask-wearing will continue to play a big part in keeping the virus under control. We’ve seen how a lack of clarity in government communications has confused the public in the past. We cannot allow that to happen again and we will need clear messaging from the Government on this ahead of the 19 July milestone.

Rachel Royall, founder, Blue Lozenge

Rachel Royall
Rachel Royall

I remember working with the Government and the amazing work Department for Transport did in relation to seat belts. The insight used to inform the marketing campaign and behaviour change was focused on not living with the guilt of killing your loved one in the front seat. The Government has access to the best comms and behaviour change specialists in the world. I’ll certainly be thinking about wearing a mask to protect the people I love.

Tony Langham, chief executive, Lansons

Tony Langham
Tony Langham

Given the level of anti-masking at one extreme and anxiety at the other, it’s an abrogation of responsibility for the Government to leave people to make their own decisions. Why should an anxious person have to ask an anti-masker to put a mask on in a crowded public space? Why should an employee at a bar or on a bus have to take the lead with customers who may be sceptical? Coming out of lockdown requires clear guidance and communication from the Government – and we didn’t get that on Monday.

Phil Caplin, founder of Broadcast Revolution

Phil Caplin
Phil Caplin

Today, we are all talking about the restrictions and what happens next – including, sadly, the polarising mask debate. Only time will tell whether this is the right health strategy. But, as of yesterday, there had been almost 1,000 mentions of ‘Freedom Day’ across national TV – our most trusted media – suggesting that our main outlets have accepted the change and we’ll trust that information.

But the question now comes – how will brands communicate their policy on this in this new ‘common sense’ world? Supermarkets are already dealing with increased issues in stores and this is likely to rise unless they are on the front foot talking to the public in media they trust.

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