Coronavirus – stay alert to the risks of vague guidance

Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.

Stay Alert. Control the virus. Save Lives.

The long-anticipated announcement from the Prime Minister regarding the next stage of the coronavirus outbreak has left nobody feeling any more certain.

In fact, it raised uncomfortable memories of the vague and conflicting messaging the week before lockdown began.

To paraphrase – ‘Try to socially distance. We’re not closing pubs and things, but we’re recommending they choose to close. You can go out if you want, but if you do it too much then we’ll stop you doing it. But we’re not stopping you right now, until you give us reason to.’

What we have seen in recent years is that people need imperatives – tangible instructions which can be clearly understood and therefore followed. Make America Great Again. Take Back Control. Here’s what we want to do, here’s what you’re contributing towards. Whether you agree with the content or not, it’s a strong message.

What people don’t need during this immensely challenging time is to feel like they’re making their own impossible decisions, potentially choosing between their career and their health. It was that level of personal freedom – or lack of clarity and leadership – in the early stages which set us back so far.

‘Stay Home’ is still a perfectly accurate instruction, there was no need to change it. There may now be more nuance around it, but there always was. Stay at home – UNLESS you’re a key worker. UNLESS you’re exercising. UNLESS you’re buying food. UNLESS you’re supporting others. For now, at least, there is only one more caveat to add – UNLESS you need to go to work because you can’t work from home.

‘Stay alert’ is so vague and broad as to be completely meaningless, and removing the prior ‘Stay Home’ message – in addition to changing the messaging colour scheme from a warning red and yellow to a cheerful yellow and green – will leave some to conclude that they simply don’t need to stay home any more. The regulations have been relaxed.

Encouraging people to avoid using public transport where possible is no help to those who have no other way of getting to work. Many people in rural communities or large metropolitan cities rely largely or entirely on bus, tram and tube services. We have already seen increased crowding on tubes in the aftermath of the announcement. The caveat ‘where possible’ is simply not enough.

Any announcement simply has to offer more answers than it generates questions, and that was not the case yesterday. This seems not to be a communications issue, but an issue with heeding the advice of communications professionals. A timely reminder that this outbreak will not be controlled solely within the spheres of health or the economy, but also by the ability of those in power to communicate this advice effectively.

Anon.

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