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Covid-19 rules better understood in Wales than England, says university study

24 Feb 2021 3 minute read
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) in a speech broadcast on BBC One. Mark Drakeford (right), picture by the Welsh Government.

Covid-19 rules were better understood by the public in Wales than in England during the summer, according to a university study.

Research conducted by University College London (UCL) for its Covid-19 Social Study found that while public understanding of the rules dropped across the UK heading into the summer, the decrease was significantly larger in England than in the devolved nations.

In England only 45 per cent of adults reported broad understanding of the rules, with just 14 per cent understanding them ‘very much’.

This compared to 61 per cent reporting a broad understanding in Wales and 18 per cent reporting understanding the rules ‘very much’.

In Scotland a broad understanding of the rules was reported to be even higher at 75 per cent, while 27 per cent reported understanding them ‘very much’.

A poll by Opinium found that the public believed messaging from governments was clearest at the beginning of the pandemic in March, when people were told to simply “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” At that time an overwhelming majority of 88 per cent said it was clear, while 12 per cent said it wasn’t.

However, research suggests that people were far less sure about the stages that followed. For examples the easing of the first lockdown, the rule of six, and the regional tiered system.

‘Lockdown rules’ 

Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, has criticised the UK Government’s messaging on lockdown rules in England.

She said it made communicating more nuanced instructions to the public even harder for itself with “very unhelpful” decisions to pause the daily Downing Street briefings and switch to a “non-evidence based message which its behavioural science group didn’t endorse”.

This included the slogan “stay alert”, which she argued was vague and exposed a lack of long-term communications strategy.

The governments in Wales and in Scotland decided to stick with the “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives” for longer than the UK Government.

Professor Bauld added that the Dominic Cummings affair was a disaster for government communications.

UCL research for The Lancet released in August found that controversial 264-mile drive to Durham by Boris Johnson’s former advisor, at the height of the first lockdown led to a significant and lasting drop in public confidence in government.

Several minsters and officials have also criticised the UK Government’s messaging throughout 2020, with leaking and overpromising being identified as particular problems.

An ex-Downing Street press officer defended the government’s pandemic messaging, telling Politics Home: ““It’s unbelievably difficult to communicate, and even critics of the government ought to have some regard for that.”

A UK Government spokesperson told The House: “The government has worked tirelessly to combat the pandemic, delivering a strategy to protect our NHS and save lives.

“Throughout this crisis we have set out clear instructions to the public about what they need to do in order to delay the spread of the disease. The vast majority continue to play their part, washing their hands regularly, wearing face coverings and following social distancing rules.

“We also work closely with local authorities to share best practice and insight on communications, and have delivered a paid marketing campaign according to local risk levels in England to ensure our messaging lands locally.”

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