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The UK’s new lockdown rules are another coronavirus comms mess

Boris Johnson’s Sunday evening address to the nation was far from the Churchillian message of reassurance the prime minister was hoping to deliver. Instead of inspiring confidence and steely resolve, what the prime minister actually delivered was fourteen minutes of confusion wrapped in a flimsy veil of science.

What else could he have expected? In the last week, the government’s under-the-table briefings had newspapers heralding the imminent end of the UK's lockdown only for the government to pour cold water on this optimism a day later. The morning after the address Dominic Raab was sent out to do the media rounds to clarify the new guidelines. What followed was even more confusion, corrections, and then corrections to those corrections.

Sunday’s television message was, by far, the government’s most shambolic attempt at coronavirus messaging, but it is not the first. Since the early days of the UK’s coronavirus outbreak, the government’s messaging has been confused and contradictory. Despite daily press briefings, policy changes have dribbled out through selective briefings, tweets and reverse ferrets,

In case you need reminding how we ended up in this situation, here are a few of the government’s most egregious coronavirus communications self-owns.

Herd immunity

At the beginning of the UK’s outbreak, when the number of confirmed infections was still under 500, media reports started suggesting that instead of seeking to contain the outbreak, the UK was considering a new strategy: herd immunity. In an interview with BBC News on March 11, David Halpern, chief executive of the government-owned Behavioural Insights Team and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (better known as Sage), outlined an approach that depended on shielding vulnerable people from Covid-19 until enough of the UK population had acquired immunity to stop its spread altogether. At the same time, someone close to the government briefed the ITV political editor Robert Peston along similar lines.

A day later, the UK’s chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance seemed to endorse the strategy, saying at a press conference that “Our aim is not to stop everyone getting it, you can’t do that. And it’s not desirable, because you want to get some immunity in the population.” What actually happened was that 12 days later the UK followed the lead of Italy and Spain and went into lockdown, but later Vallance confirmed that herd immunity had never been the government’s strategy. At a House of Commons select committee hearing on May 5 he stressed that the UK strategy had always been to suppress the peak of the outbreak.

Immunity passports

On April 2, health secretary Matt Hancock offered a glimmer of hope for members of the public already beleaguered after weeks of lockdown. If people could take tests that prove they were immune to the virus, they might be able to return to normal life sooner, he said.

Hancock’s optimism appears to have come from a study being proposed at the time by German researchers that would look at how much of the public was already immune to the virus. A handful of garbled media reports suggested that the German government was already considering the scheme, but more than a month later the German health minister confirmed that he wouldn’t take the idea any further until the German Ethics Council had decided whether such a scheme could respect people’s rights.

Any immunity passport scheme would hinge on having antibody tests that could accurately test whether someone had antibodies against Covid-19. But four million tests purchased by the UK for £16 million were found to be too inaccurate for mass use and we still don’t know whether exposure to the coronavirus leads to long term immunity. Perhaps because of this, Hancock hasn’t mentioned immunity passports much in recent weeks.


There is an adage called Goodhart’s Law that states that once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Hancock may not have heard of Goodhart’s Law when he committed on April 2 that the number of daily Covid-19 tests in the UK would pass 100,000 by the end of the month.

What followed was a masterclass in the tortuous twisting of definitions. While Hancock originally stated that the bar was set at complete tests, by the middle of April government ministers were proudly crowing about the increased testing capacity while the number of actual tests performed lagged far behind that needed to achieve the end-of-April target.

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And then a miracle happened. On May 1, Hancock declared that the UK had smashed its deadline, providing more than 122,000 tests on the last day of April. If you look a little closer at these numbers, everything is not quite as rosy as it seems. That figure included 27,497 testing kits delivered to people’s homes and 12,872 kits sent to testing centres, which means that the UK was actually almost 20,000 tests off its 100,000-a-day target.

For the last eight days, the UK has not met its 100,000-a-day testing target at all. As of May 11, the last day that the UK hit Hancock’s target was May 2.

Easing lockdown

Johnson’s May 10 address to the nation was meant to be the first step on the slow road back to normality. In reality, it was an unmitigated disaster. The speech set out a new Covid-19 alert level linked to the mathematically meaningless formula: “Covid Alert Level = Rate of infection + number of infections”. As of today, that would put the Covid-19 alert level at around 219,183.7.

Mathematical confusion aside, Johnson’s biggest failure was his complete lack of clarity around key issues. Delivering the news that those who could not work from home should now go into work at 07:00pm on Sunday evening is useless for those who have work on Monday morning, and provided nothing in the way of assurance about what a safe workplace should look like.

Johnson was equally vague about that other crucial part of life: socialising. On Monday morning, Raab attempted to clarify things in a series of media interviews which only muddied the waters even further. Depending on which television or radio show you listened to, the government advice was either that you couldn’t meet a single family member outside your household, or that you could meet two of them, but only in separate meetings, or that you could meet only one of them as long as you stayed two metres away. Simple, right?

The government is due to issue in-depth guidance later on May 11, but England’s garbled approach looks even more confused next to the relatively stable messaging from elsewhere in the UK. In Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said the once-a-day exercise limit would be lifted but otherwise the “stay at home” message would stay in place. Wales, too, is sticking with its “stay at home” message while lifting restrictions around exercise.

Although this government has had its fair share of communications missteps, Sunday’s briefing has firmly topped the list.

In the last seven days the government has: briefed papers about the lockdown; immediately walked back on that briefing; teased details about a lifting lockdown while insisting the UK is still fully under lockdown; told people they should return to work in twelve hours; delivered contradictory public health advice through media appearances and then corrected that advice minutes later.

Johnson says he is following the science in the fight against coronavirus, but the government’s communications strategy has been a masterclass in chasing your own tail.

Matt Reynolds is WIRED's science editor. He tweets from @mattsreynolds1

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This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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