In mid-March, Boris Johnson said it would take 12 weeks to ‘turn the tide’ on Covid. In the same month, he said antibody testing would be ‘game changing’. In May, he said the UK would implement a ‘world beating’ test and trace system. In June, he was confident enough in our efforts to tackle the virus to proclaim it was our ‘patriotic duty’ to go to the pub.
It’s fair to say it hasn’t panned out like this. We all know where the UK ranks in terms of Covid deaths, and the sorry state of the testing system. Of course, GPs knew from the start the fight we were in.
But GPs’ patients could be forgiven for believing Mr Johnson at a time when they were desperate to latch on to any piece of positive news (and I include world-weary health editors in that). But offering such false hope will have a negative effect in the long term.
That is not to say it is all doom. As Pulse has reported, we are getting close to seeing the first doses of Covid vaccine. Our interview with Professor Chris Butler also highlights the efforts being made to research treatments.
But the fact is that Covid is going to be a long haul. England’s chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance made the point to MPs last month that we have only eradicated one human disease in history, smallpox. He also stressed that we don’t know the potential effectiveness of any vaccine. Indeed, he said it is likely Covid will become ‘endemic’.
This is helpful – if not heartening – to hear. It manages expectations. But Sir Patrick was addressing a parliamentary committee, covered on Parliament TV, and I think this message will struggle to penetrate through to the public.
It is imperative it does, however. And the message has to be accompanied by a long-term containment plan, detailing time frames, the sacrifices needed and the mines on the path ahead.
How can this be done? First, reintroduce briefings (though not necessarily daily and not the political press conferences being led by the PM’s new, US-style spokesperson). The briefings allowed journalists to tease out details of the latest restrictions, and more authoritative people than Mr Johnson – like Sir Patrick and CMO Professor Chris Whitty – to explain the figures and the gravity of the situation.
Second, we need clear messaging – simplicity is almost more important than the policy itself. I know there is real debate about the focus on Covid and whether lockdowns cause more harm than good, as our cover feature explains. But a situation where people don’t understand the rules – the case ever since the full lockdown was lifted – is the worst of all worlds.
Finally, we need brutal honesty. The test and trace system is broken and we need to know how it will be fixed (ideally, using local health experts). Be honest about vaccines. Give us the worst-case scenarios, but also explain how you will mitigate them. Provide realistic timelines so we know where we stand. Have contingency plans in case the vaccines prove ineffective and the treatments aren’t working.
Hard decisions honestly taken and actions clearly communicated are more likely to win public buy-in. This approach is a true ‘patriotic duty’ – sadly it is one I’m not sure our PM is capable of.
Jaimie Kaffash is editor of Pulse. Follow him on Twitter @jkaffash or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.