Many of us will have had tough conversations with loved ones in recent days to try to get them to take coronavirus seriously. I broached the subject a couple of weeks ago after I saw what was happening in Italy. Government experts there were saying that 60% of us could eventually contract the virus, and I didn’t want those I loved to take any risks.

After 48 hours of begging, entreating and beseeching, I resorted to scare tactics. “If you end up hooked up to a ventilator with only hours to live, we won’t be able to be there. That’s what’s happening in Italy.” Horrible, but it worked.

It’s easy to look at the photos from last weekend of teeming parks and crowded pubs, and attack people for being selfish and stupid. But at least as much responsibility lies with the dire lack of a concerted public information campaign from the government.

Public health is all about behaviour change and a public health strategy lives or dies by the effectiveness of its communication. Any information campaign needs a clear instruction, wrapped up in messaging that persuades people to change their behaviour. So far, the communications experts I have spoken to have their heads in their hands over the way this has been handled.

Even after the launch of the “wash your hands” campaign, Boris Johnson said he was shaking hands continuously; even after we were told not to see at-risk relatives, he said he hoped to see his mother on Mother’s Day. After the UK’s first coronavirus death, he declared “business as usual”, an approach one former government communications director described to me as “fatally flawed” when tough restrictions were clearly coming down the track.

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Widely reported comments about “herd immunity” implied the government was relaxed about a certain amount of transmission. Then, as the guidance changed rapidly, it was hard to work out what it meant. Were you allowed out for a walk while self-isolating? Why were pubs and restaurants allowed to stay open even though we were told not to go to them?

Tone has also been a problem: “I’m absolutely confident we can send coronavirus packing,” Johnson said last week in a timbre more fitting of an Enid Blyton novel. Entreaties to the public have been counterproductively filled with meaningless jargon. “‘Flatten the curve’ might be the strategy but that doesn’t make it your key message. It makes the problem seem more abstract and distant from people’s lives,” Nicky Hawkins, a communications expert at the Frameworks Institute, tells me.


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A former director of the Central Office of Information (COI), the government’s in-house communications agency from 1946 until it was thrown on the bonfire of the quangos in 2011, says the government has just relied on the media to filter through announcements from press conferences and briefings that are not always accurate. “It’s pretty well-established huge numbers don’t look at mass media in that way any more.” Back in the day, the COI would have been responsible for coordinating communications across Whitehall, with an infrastructure of regional offices to work with local government on filtering the message down to communities.

Things have improved a bit recently with a short TV address direct to the nation with a clear message to stay home, though the advice on what you are allowed to leave home for has evolved. But what is motivating people to follow it? Thinking back to those first conversations I had with family, I wondered why the government isn’t doing more to scare the nation into action, along the lines of the frightening 1980s HIV/Aids TV advert that featured a tombstone and warned “don’t die of ignorance”.

But while fear can be effective in raising awareness, it can backfire if people don’t understand what they need to do, and why, to avoid death. “If all you do is emphasise the fear, then people become paralysed and just want to shut the whole thing out,” Hawkins says.

None of the government communication has explained in simple terms why staying at home makes such a big difference to infection and hence death rates – which is particularly important given that many young people have heard that the risks to them as individuals are low. Why aren’t we being told that each of us staying home for a month right now could save X lives, and that they could be our parents or grandparents or the people working to keep us safe?

But the government simply isn’t thinking hard enough about what motivates people to act. Take the “panic buying” that has led to empty shelves. At a press conference, an NHS leader said we should all be ashamed that a nurse was left unable to buy food, which subsequently made headlines. Shame is a dreadfully ineffective way of trying to motivate people to change their behaviour. Why hasn’t everyone appearing on a government podium been briefed to provide reassurance that the food won’t run out, rather than chastise people for their lack of moral fibre?

A lot about this is unprecedented, so no one has all the answers. But the irony is that Johnson’s adviser, Dominic Cummings, made his name testing different messages in real time on Facebook to quickly ascertain which pro-Brexit messages worked. Yet the government has been incredibly slow off the mark in even using the free advertising it has been offered on social media.

The public information campaign will become even more important in the coming months as people become increasingly fatigued with heavy restrictions on their freedoms. The government has got it badly wrong so far, but by getting a grip on the way it communicates, it could yet save lives.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer



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