Stay home, eat out and other mixed messages: Why embracing uncertainty about the evidence would have bolstered Covid communications

Posted in: COVID-19, Evidence and policymaking, UK politics

Andy Dunne is in his second year of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR)'s part-time MSc Public Policy. He is a Media and PR Manager at the University of Bath, promoting research and expertise from its Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and has worked previously in communications roles spanning policy and politics. 

When Boris Johnson spoke to the nation in his televised address on Monday 23 March to announce the first lockdown, his message was clear: ‘you must stay at home’. This was a watershed moment in the early weeks of the pandemic; a response to alarming new modelling that showed the potential scale of the crisis (Ferguson et al 2020) without urgent action. After weeks of fragmented wrangling over timing and approach, an unprecedented decision had finally been taken and communicated.

From ‘Stay Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’

Overnight, government communications were rebranded and rolled out under the tagline ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’, translating current evidence about the risks into a compelling message (Garrett 2020). Clear communications which resonated with the public (Reynolds 2005; Bonnell et al 2020) fed through to behaviour change en masse and an initial surge in support for the government’s handling of the crisis (YouGov).

Clarity in communications, though, would be short-lived. As conditions improved and lockdown eased, messages about what people could and should do became hazier as infection rates fell and competing economic and educational pressures loomed large. ‘Stay Alert, Control The Virus, Save Lives’, introduced as lockdown eased, was widely derided as confusing and unclear, despite the government’s own claims to the contrary.

Ambiguity and tensions over ‘the new normal’ drew out many of the complex challenges present when considering how evidence informs decision-making and behaviour change. This interplay with communications matters: in the absence of a vaccine, our only weapon to stop rising infections is the public’s willingness to listen and act upon the guidance (Reicher 2020). This, in turn, relies on their support and understanding of the rules, and their acceptance of the decisions guiding them.

‘Led by the science’ and mixed messages 

While the government has taken every opportunity to assert that it is being ‘led by the science’, far less attention has been paid to what that mantra truly means. Clearly, it serves a communications function in rubber-stamping tough decisions, offering a reassuring degree of certainty and hope that experts are in charge, but it is misleading:

  • To be ‘led by’ implies the scientific should trump all other evidence, whilst potentially abrogating responsibility for decisions made. This created a false, idealised public illusion of a linear process for evidence-informed policy making (Lancaster et al, 2020).
  • Use of the term ‘the science’ implies a single, clear consensus from the experts searching for a single truth. This has perpetuated a false promise in the public’s mind that the decisions it informs will always be the right ones, which easily come unstuck when knowledge is contested or changes (Rutter et al, 2020).

Such distortion feeds into a communications challenge in government announcements witnessed throughout the pandemic. Through the mechanism of SAGE, differing scientific advice across epidemiology, virology, mathematical modelling and behaviour change have all fed into these decisions. But trade-offs and concessions against other policy priorities have understandably been made too, in particular over intense pressure to restart the economy and reopen schools.

Consider the decision to relax social distancing to ‘one metre plus’ in the summer. Justified at the time on the grounds of being introduced alongside new protective measures and falling infections, but widely understood as a way to enable pubs and bars to reopen (bolstered by the highly-questionable ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ incentive scheme). This is an example of adaptive evidence-making and intervention, balancing the economy with public health risks, and using the best available evidence at the time (Lancaster et al 2020).

Yet these trade-offs also created ‘viable, clumsy solutions’ (Rutter et al 2020) - leading to inevitable mixed messaging, as witnessed with the initial delay to lockdown, changes to international quarantining, the introduction of face coverings, ‘the rule of six’ coupled with the tiered system of tighter restrictions in local areas and now, finally and after more wrangling, a second national lockdown. Set to a soundbite that everything has been ‘led by the science’, this juxtaposition has been exacerbated by wider concerns about direction and strategy (Reynolds 2005).

Embracing uncertainty and imagining a different course

For many, the issue at fault in this approach is paternalism (Durodie 2020; Ruiu 2020). This is driven by a false assumption that people are psychologically frail, unable to cope with adversity and in need of certainty. As Reicher highlights, this belies their true resilience and acceptance of doubt (2020).

Certainty though, is something Ministers have been keen to latch onto: offering early hope that ‘the UK can turn the tide in the next 12 weeks’; promising a ‘world-beating’ track and trace system; claiming a second national lockdown would be ‘disastrous’ before u-turning; not to mention reference to normality returning by Christmas. These claims were always uncertain, yet in a quest to reassure, over-promising and under-delivering, coupled with mixed messaging, has severely undermined public trust in leadership.

Switching out of campaigning mode by changing the tone, acknowledging limitations and patchy evidence within the complex situation we are in, could have all paid off with greater public acceptance. And other world leaders show how this can be done. Take New Zealand’s recently-re-elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

In embracing uncertainty, embodying and espousing shared values, she has taken decisive action informed by imperfect evidence, communicating tough decisions and their limitations. By expressing uncertainty with clarity, she is ‘giving most Western politicians a masterclass in crisis communications’ - a blueprint for a better response that would help better manage expectations about the inevitable policy inconsistencies when so much still remains unclear.

Key references

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath. 

Read more of our blogs on COVID-19.

Posted in: COVID-19, Evidence and policymaking, UK politics


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