Coronavirus mixed messaging is a complete mess

As confirmed coronavirus cases ‘spiked’ at almost 3,000 per day, the government wasted no time in reminding us that we have a responsibility to stick to the ‘rules’ they have set out in terms of maintaining social distancing, hand washing, wearing facemasks and avoiding public transport if possible. And in some cases (towns which are under stricter lockdown conditions), not seeing people from different households in your home, garden or even a public space (although you can mix with other people you don’t know in public spaces as long as you maintain your social distance).

At the same time, led by cheerleader and PM, Boris Johnson, there is a full-blooded campaign urging us to get back to the office, save our town centre businesses and help to get the economy moving again.

Confused as to what you should do? You’re not alone.

Remember the slogan so clearly etched into our brains over many weeks during springtime: ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. Brief and to the point. This virus kills. Don’t be a victim or a carrier.

Crystal clear.

If you’re one of the people living in Leicester, Greater Manchester or certain towns in South Lancashire and West Yorkshire you will be particularly aware of the government’s desire to restrict the spread of the virus by the reimposition of lockdown restrictions and the threat of significant fines for any household that invites their neighbour to pop round for a chat - even in the garden.

Is it any wonder, then, that the government is struggling to convince people that the office is a safe place to go?

It is a classic case of mixed messages. The result, as you would expect, is that people try to interpret what they think is the right thing to do (heavily biased towards what they want that right thing to be) or they simply throw their hands up in the air and just going about their business as normal until somebody tells them differently.

Even the anomalies within the guidelines scream inconsistency and absence of logic. For example, if you live in Bolton, you can spend eight hours a day in the same office as someone, but you can’t stop off for a drink in a beer garden with them on the way home.

Could the confusion have been avoided?

Yes, but it would demand strong leadership, a worked out, coherent strategy that balanced the protection of health with protection of the economy and the strength of character to see it through, while voices from many directions are telling you you’ve got it wrong.

The decision-making by the government has been reactive to (daily) events and, in some cases, appears knee-jerk (note the reimposition of the lockdown in Greater Manchester on the evening before Eid). Much of its messaging has been inconsistent and riddled with anomalies.

Is it unfair to level criticism at the government in the face of such an unprecedented situation brought about by a viral pandemic? Time will tell on the overall handling of the pandemic, but in communications terms, it has been and continues to be a mess.

[Edit update 9 Sep 20: Government is restricting most gatherings to six people - apart from the workplace; schools, 'life events' (e.g. weddings, funerals), organised sport - to provide greater clarity to the public and make it easier for the police to enforce the rules]

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