If only it wasn’t sunny. If only it wasn’t Mother’s Day. If only it wasn’t Boris Johnson. The UK government’s muddled response to the coronavirus pandemic was brought into sharp relief this weekend as huge numbers of people flocked to parks, beaches and markets to mingle in close proximity in scenes that have alarmed public health officials. It was a glorious weekend – the first glorious days of spring. It was also a horror show.
The public, it has now become abundantly clear, doesn’t understand what the government’s message is – and how crucial it is that everyone does their bit. And that’s because there is no message. The impact of this lack of messaging won’t be felt for a week or two, when the NHS will be hit with a huge number of coronavirus cases requiring critical care beds that simply don’t exist. Italy continues to be a harrowing omen that many have failed to heed. Officials are incredulous. Soon, the public will be incredulous at how badly they were led.
It is far too easy to say that everybody is to blame and therefore nobody is to blame. That the UK’s impending surge in coronaviruses cases is a result of the public failing to adhere to government advice. But, for weeks, that advice has come across as muddled, contradictory and has been communicated in a way that lacks seriousness. It has been delivered through a jumble of anonymous briefings to political journalists, pay-walled op-eds from senior politicians and, eventually, in daily press briefings where everyone sits or stands right next to one another while touching their faces.
And those press briefings lay bare just how out of his depth the prime minister is. On Sunday, government officials were briefing political journalists to express their outrage at how people were flouting advice to limit social contact. Also on Sunday, the prime minister was telling people to “go to the parks and open spaces” and “enjoy themselves”. When asked by one journalist when he will bring in the police to enforce social distancing and self-isolation measures, Johnson was aghast. “The police?!” he exclaimed. Scrambling desperately for the zingy newspaper headline he so loves, on March 19 a smiling Johnson claimed that the UK could “turn the tide of this disease” within 12 weeks. It was the pandemic version of “get Brexit done”. One day later, he effectively shut down the country, suggesting the tide, as he put it, was turning against us and not the other way round.
Johnson continues to play the frazzled thesaurus, throwing out a confusing array of words, some comprehensible, most barely, in an attempt to communicate the seriousness of the situation. He is failing. As his March 17 press briefing drew to a close, he outdid himself. “I just want to repeat that key message,” he said, before telling people to follow the scientific advice “sedulously” – a word whose usage peaked in 1830.
And it’s not just what Johnson is saying that’s causing confusion, it’s the way he’s saying it. There’s a carefree lightness to his tone, the familiar bluster and bumble seemingly making it impossible for him to stress the seriousness of the crisis we all face. Less than three weeks ago, Johnson was enthusiastically telling the nation about his visit to a hospital. “I can tell you that I’m I’m I’m I’m I’m shaking hands continuously,” he said. “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know and I continue to shake hands”. Johnson has never been a great orator, struggling to keep to script and relying on bluster and jokes to get by. This is no time for either.
The mismanagement of how to communicate the seriousness of this crisis seeps far beyond the daily press conferences. Case in point: Mother’s Day. At 00:01 on Sunday, Johnson finally delivered his advice for this special day to the nation, and his advice was clear and simple: “don’t visit Mum”. Unfortunately, the advice was published in The Sunday Times, which is behind a paywall where the prime minister’s advice was interrupted by an abrupt message asking people to pay to continue reading. It was the second time the government had made this mistake. Earlier last week, Johnson had been asked a straightforward question: would he be seeing his own mother this weekend? Yes, was the answer, he hoped he would. It’s little wonder that people don’t know how to behave when their own prime minister seemingly has no clue what his own advice is.
It’s not just the bungled messaging, or the delivery of it, that’s leaving people unsure of how to behave. When Johnson urges people to “practice social distancing” he sounds like he’s suggesting some form of psychotherapy. What he actually means to say is everyone should stay at home, all the time, except to get groceries once or twice a week or to go to work if you are unable to work from home. Explained in such terms, there is little room for confusion. Nicola Sturgeon got closer this week while still not completely nailing it when she said: “life should not feel normal”. And yet, for many, it does.
If people aren’t getting the message it’s because the message is all over the place. In the space of just a few weeks the government has lurched from keeping the schools open and preaching the benefits of herd immunity to closing all the schools and telling people off for meeting up with family and friends for a weekend walk. The coronavirus is a fast-moving crisis – but it is one where we can gaze into the future. To China, South Korea, Italy and Spain. And yet Johnson continues to prevaricate, as he might put it.
While the buck stops at Johnson, this crisis of communication isn’t all about his failings. It is also about the failure of the state to use every means necessary to inform its people. Where has the blanket TV, radio, billboard and online advertising campaign been? How is it still possible to watch primetime TV on a Saturday night and have no clue that the world is in the grip of a deadly pandemic? When the government wanted to get Brexit done, it was hard to turn the TV on without being confronted by advertisements reminding people and businesses to get ready for the big day. And yet, so far, the silence has been deafening.
On electronic billboards flanking my local Tesco, I am confronted by a 30-foot image of David Gandy promoting multivitamins and a building-sized advert encouraging me to visit South Carolina. I cannot visit South Carolina: the US is closed to all Europeans. I cannot buy multivitamins: they have all been stockpiled. Between these billboards, those in the crowd outside Tesco jostle for prime position, a group of dozens none more than a few inches apart.
The government talks about implementing more draconian measures to stop people from interacting with one another. Before it does, it should buy up huge quantities of advertising real estate – both digital and physical – to ram home its message. Yes, it will be costly. But it will save lives. Officials need to explain exactly what social distancing and self-isolation mean, not in abstract terms but by acting them out (as this excellent ITV Wales report does). Be clear, be concise, be authoritative, be serious.
Every night at 5pm, the nation is greeted by its leader, a figure who appears increasingly bored by the crisis he is facing. Bored by the repetitive nature of the questions journalists ask him, bored by the lack of games to play, bored by the daily grind of suffering. Johnson is being weighed down by the sheer scale of the crisis he is facing, a crisis that is simply too big for him – or perhaps any of us – to comprehend. You can see it in his awkward smirk, the listless wafts of his hands, the way he hunches over his lectern like a teenager handed a role they did not want in the school play.
As well as a healthcare and economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic is quickly turning into a communication crisis. From Italy to Spain to France, the United States, the UK and beyond, our failure to fully comprehend how big a crisis coronavirus is will ultimately cost us many thousands of lives. Sedulousness has never been more necessary.
James Temperton is WIRED’s digital editor. He tweets from @jtemperton
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