NEWS25 May 2022

Covid-19 communications ‘created misunderstanding', finds inquiry

Covid-19 News Public Sector UK

UK – The government’s “authoritarian approach” to communications during Covid-19 hampered the UK public’s ability to handle the pandemic, according to an inquiry by science charity Sense About Science.

Masks on Tube in Covid-19

The What Counts? inquiry was set up to explore what society needed to know and how well the UK government was able to respond during Covid-19, and incorporated evidence from witnesses and the experiences of people from a broad range of sectors across the UK.

The inquiry found that government failed to give enough explanation or share available evidence needed for people to make decisions on how to prevent Covid-19 in places such as care homes, restaurants, schools and businesses.

Instead, government opted for simple rules and slogans that in some cases created misunderstanding and led to unnecessary harm, according to the inquiry.

Sense About Science said one example was the use of the ‘hands, face, space’ slogan long after scientists had shown ventilation was a more important factor in Covid-19’s spread than stopping surface transmission.

In taking an “authoritarian approach”, according to Sense About Science, the government missed an opportunity to engage with the public and manage the pandemic better, forcing the public to search for information on their own.

Modelling scenarios did not include the harm done by closing schools, Sense About Science said, and established cost-benefit principles of health economics were not discussed, despite being used by the NHS to make decisions between treatments.

Social services were faced with conflicting rules for dealing with Covid-19, said Sense About Science, and requirements to provide people with essential care, resulting in a postcode lottery of outcomes.

The inquiry concludes that both government and the public need to be better equipped to discuss difficult trade-offs and uncertainty, and recommends a new standard of transparency about policy evidence.

Other recommendations include better understanding and use of modelling to optimise different social needs, scoping a public responsive trials unit for policy interventions, and greater transparency of models and scenarios used in decisions.

Improvements to government platforms and communications, creation of knowledge maps for policy and training of policy professionals in uncertainty were also recommended by the inquiry.

Tracey Brown, director at Sense about Science, said: “Government must now ask itself whether it sees its role as enabling society or only instructing it.

“The pandemic has shown that, for rapidly evolving policies to be successfully implemented in many and varied settings, people on the ground need to be empowered to make well-reasoned judgements.

“That requires a government committed to being transparent and responsive, sharing what it knows and explaining decisions not made on evidence.”

Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee, Greg Clark MP, said: “It supports the finding of the committee’s joint inquiry on Covid-19 that short slogans such as ‘stay at home’ were effective at the start of the pandemic, but unclear messaging caused confusion in the later stages and did not reflect the nuance of policy in place at the time.

“I hope this report will catalyse conversations within government on how to build on and retain the many positive innovations of the pandemic as well as to implement lessons for future emergencies.”