As Westminster sows coronavirus confusion the Welsh Government needs to cut through the noise
Ifan Morgan Jones
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has long cultivated comparisons with Winston Churchill, and it seems that he now has a problem at his hands that requires something similar to a war effort from the public.
However, while Winston Churchill’s greatest virtue was considered to be his communication skills, this government’s efforts to communicate its message with the public has been sloppy to say the least.
Last night the ITV journalist Robert Peston revealed that he had been briefed anonymously that plans were afoot to ask those over the age of 70 to isolate themselves at home for four months.
Later on, England’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock tried to clear up any confusion by publishing an opinion piece on the Telegraph website.
However, the article was originally behind a paywall, as if it was just another piece of monetizable content rather than essential public information.
The government’s efforts this morning hasn’t done much to clear up the mixed messages. Matt Hancock has been touring the TV and radio studios saying that isolating over 70-year-olds something that could happen “in the coming weeks”.
It’s a common tactic in politics and the wider PR industry to anonymously brief journalists or plant suggestions, sit back and wait for a positive or negative reaction, and then decide whether to press ahead.
However, at a time when people’s lives and livelihoods hang in the balance, it’s completely inappropriate to send out partial, confusing and contradictory messages about what the government is doing.
The political news cycle runs on gossip and speculation, which is usually fine because much of it is of no real importance. But during a real emergency reliable information needs to be communicated directly to the public.
In order to trust that the UK Government is truly basing its decisions on the latest scientific advice, it needs to be seen to be acting clearly, openly and decisively. If it is seen to be flip-flopping based on public reaction people will rightly start questioning whether it knows what it is doing.
You have some sympathy with a government which is dealing with a monumental problem unlike anything ever encountered before. If Twitter and 24-hour news had existed in May and June 1940 perhaps even Winston Churchill would have struggled to get a consistent message across.
But the important point is that if you’re not entirely sure what to do, perhaps the best strategy is not to say anything – and definitely not to start leaking contradictory information – until you have decided on your strategy, even if there’s some criticism in the short term.
Last year £46m was spent on a pointless ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ information campaign that regularly interrupted radio, television and even Spotify playlists to keep us updated.
Surely once the UK Government settles on its strategy – and hopefully sticks to it – we will have a similar campaign with no anonymous briefing so that everyone knows where they stand.
Meanwhile, the Welsh Government had its own coronavirus shambles on Friday when the Wales v Scotland game was cancelled by the WRU after health minister Vaughan Gething had remained adamant that it should go ahead.
In fairness, it seemed that the Welsh Government were caught out by the conflicting advice from the UK Government, whose policy on mass gatherings performed a complete U-turn late on Friday.
However this could have been avoided if the Welsh Government had independently come to the conclusion, as the Scottish Government had done, that mass gatherings should be avoided.
There was plenty of expert medical advice pointing to the fact that it was obviously not a good idea to hold a 75,000+ person event in the middle of a capital city as a pandemic was taking hold.
They shouldn’t really have needed someone at Whitehall to tell them that, and pretty much everyone else who had anything planned for the weekend – right down to our local Eisteddfod – were able to come to that conclusion themselves.
To their credit, when the Welsh Government has acted of its own accord it has done so swiftly and decisively, as on Friday when they cancelled surgeries to free up beds.
But it’s not just to avoid the slow bureaucratic back-and-forth between Whitehall and Cathays Park that the Welsh Government should be ready to make its own decisions on what should be done.
Wales isn’t England – we have a higher percentage of the population in the 60+ age bracket that is most at risk, and fewer intensive care unit beds per head of the population.
For that reason, Wales will have to develop its own approach to the coronavirus that will in some ways no doubt be more stringer than that seen elsewhere.
Of course, because of a lack of a well-developed Welsh media, it will be even tougher for the Welsh Government to get its desired message across than the UK Government.
This problem is further compounded by the fact that over the last 20 years the Welsh Government has been very poor in general at getting its message over to the people of this country.
To this day, around half the population are unsure who is actually in charge of the Welsh NHS, quite a problem when there’s a public health emergency.
This means that in Wales a consistent strategy implemented now and communicated clearly with the public is now even more essential.
That means spending real money on mailouts, posters and adverts to let everyone in Wales know who is responsible for what, and what sacrifices will be expected of the public over the coming months and what precautions they will be required to take.