Comment

A Government message that educates and inspires would be more efficient than threats

Mixed messages from the PM have left people not knowing how to behave or behaving badly. Professor Chris Whitty could still fix that

On Monday morning, at 11am, the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and the Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance will address the nation in a bid to reset the Government’s communications on the coronavirus pandemic.

It will be a crucial moment, one which will determine whether the country is able to come together to see off the new surge of the virus before it shuts the country down again. At stake are not just lives but the economy – the chief determinate of the nation’s long-term wellbeing and stability.

That a reset is needed there can be no doubt. Mixed messages from the Prime Minister, double standards on the part of his most senior adviser, and a tendency for Whitehall to issue edicts rather than promote understanding has resulted in a large segments of the population either not knowing how to behave or behaving badly.

The results are plain to see. The virus is now growing exponentially again across the country, with positive tests, hospitalisations and deaths all picking up. The accelerating trend makes it all but inevitable that the country will once again be overwhelmed within a month or so unless the circuit of transmission can be broken.

“The trend in UK is heading in the wrong direction and we are at a critical point in the pandemic,” Prof Whitty is expected to say. “We are looking at the data to see how to manage the spread of the virus ahead of a very challenging winter period.”

There are plenty of sceptical voices, of course; the new Swedophiles who have come to regard Europe’s most socialistic nation as a beacon of the libertarian ideal. Just do as they do and let the virus rip and all will be hunky-dory, they say.

But in this, they make several mistakes. First and contrary to popular belief, Sweden has had a lockdown with secondary schools closed for much of the spring and strict legal orders still in place restricting the liberties of many of those over 70 and other high-risk groups.

Also, as noted by Imperial College London’s Professor Neil Ferguson, compliance with the social-distancing guidelines in Sweden (which are broadly the same as were here until a few weeks ago) are better complied with by its population which is more trusting of its state and more willing to take direction.  

I exaggerate for effect, but a big night out in Sweden is more likely to involve some gentle herring pickling and a dip in a frozen lake than the sort of debauchery common here. It is not for nothing that the country sits near the top of the Nanny State Index, a league table of “the worst places in the European Union to eat, drink, smoke and vape”. 

A second mistake is to think that avoiding another lockdown is in the Prime Minister’s gift.

The first UK lockdown was sparked by the terrible spectacle of thousands dying in Italy and Spain. If deaths and hospitalisations start to mount again here, the nation will quickly shut down of its own accord. It’s a basic flight reflex – a matter of self-preservation.

So how might Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick reset the Government’s message? What would be the ideal format and what should be the key message?

Firstly, I would leave it to Prof Whitty. Fair or otherwise (and I’ve no idea which) Sir Patrick is damaged goods. He allowed himself to be misunderstood on 'herd immunity' early on in the crisis and he has the faint whiff of the greasy pole about him.

Prof Whitty, in contrast, is liked and trusted. He should address the nation directly and it should take the serious tenor of a formal public-service announcement. 

He will need time – half an hour at a minimum – and he should use it to explain, not just the threat we face, but how we can avoid it through a series of relatively simple measures, collectively executed. His excellent Gresham College lecture of earlier this year provides an ideal template for tone and format.

The Prime Minister and the Health Secretary have spent the past 24 hours, issuing what amount to threats – huge fines for disobedience, the forced closure of businesses et cetera. This is another mistake. No one likes threats, not least when it is a collective endeavour that is required of us. 

Rule benders also know all too well that the Government does not have the practical means to enforce new laws and that most of the the courts are closed anyway.

Prof Whitty should instead treat us as adults. He should focus not on rules to be learnt by rote (and which we can all pick holes in) but on educating the nation about the dynamics of viral transmission and relative risk.

The new evidence on aerosol transmission, the dangers of closed and unventilated spaces, the way in which households are naturally networked, the role of superspreading events, the difficulty in shielding the vulnerable – these are just some of the key issues he might highlight.

Perhaps most important of all, Prof Whitty could reset expectations and the nation’s perspective.

The virus – and the changes in our behaviour it necessitates – are likely to be with us for another year or more. But the choice is not between between freedom or servitude, boom or bust. Many countries are getting through this pandemic without crisis or even much damage to their economies.  

That is because they have adapted and adjusted, with everyone pulling together to do their bit. 

Prof Whitty needs to inspire Britain to buckle down and do the same.

Note: This article has been updated. It previously said Sir Patrick Vallance was not a medic which was incorrect.  He was a senior NHS clinician and professor of medicine before joining GlaxoSmithKline in 2006. 

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