COVID-19: Government comms failings laid bare in damning Select Committee report

A major report released today by a joint committee of MPs has highlighted serious failings in the way the Government's comms evolved during the pandemic.

Former health secretary Matt Hancock

The “initial messaging from the Government early in the pandemic was strong, effective and undoubtedly contributed to the success of the first lockdown”, according to the report by the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee.

However, a key moment when comms went off course was after the Government abandoned its original "Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives" slogan in May last year and replaced it with "Stay alert, control the virus and save lives".’

“After the gradual lifting of the first lockdown from May 2020, Government guidance became increasingly complex and harder to understand, with restrictions varying in different parts of the country.”

The report adds: “Government communications did not always reflect this nuance, leading to perceived inconsistency and divergent strategies across the four nations of the UK."

In addition, the “three-tier approach to local lockdown restrictions in England introduced more complexity to Government messaging” and “this more differentiated messaging strategy meant that levels of public understanding and compliance began to deteriorate”.

The failures in comms are part of a bigger picture of mistakes and delays that resulted in lives being lost. The report claims the Government waited too long before putting the country into lockdown, and that the policy decision to not test people discharged from hospitals to care homes early on was a failure that led to deaths. And “slow, uncertain, and often chaotic performance of the test, trace and isolate system severely hampered the UK's response to the pandemic”.

In terms of the impact of the Government's comms on the public, the report refers to a study by University College London that showed “much poorer comprehension of the rules” among the public last October than at the beginning of the pandemic. “Self-reported compliance was consequently also much lower, with just over 40 per cent reporting ‘complete compliance’ with guidelines, compared to 70 per cent earlier in the pandemic.”

And the “inconsistency in Government messaging after the first wave of the pandemic was also damaging to public trust in official information”, the report states.

It cites an analysis by Leeds Beckett University that showed “most members of the public did not trust information from the UK Government and that they were much more likely to trust information shared by the World Health Organization”.

The report also refers to the notorious trip taken by the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings to County Durham during lockdown. “The perception that key Government figures, including the former assistant to the Prime Minister, had breached lockdown rules may have further undermined public trust during spring 2020.”

It goes on to state: “Lower levels of public trust and understanding of the regulations also created a gap into which misinformation was able to spread.”

And the report warns: “This highlights the critical importance of a communications strategy which is clear, consistent and perceived as transparent by the public.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We disagree with these findings. Throughout the pandemic we have set out clear, targeted and effective communications to help the public protect themselves, directly preventing millions of infections and saving thousands of lives."

Claire Pimm, director of the National Resilience Communications Hub, added: “Effective PR from central and local government has played a key role in this campaign to protect lives and livelihoods. This work has been recognised by the UN, OECD and WHO who have recently used one of our campaigns to counter disinformation"

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