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Hyperbolic and confused government messaging on Covid-19 has eroded trust among the public and helped created a sense of disconnection between Westminster and those managing the pandemic at a local level, according to a report by Whitehall advisers.
The C-19 National Foresight Group highlighted ministers’ tendency to over-promise and under-deliver, and the erratic, often late-night timing of key pandemic announcements – often without prior consultation or warning – as examples of poor communications that were undermining Covid recovery efforts.
The general tone, style and timing of the government’s messages was the cause of widespread irritation among local leaders, who were concerned at its negative impact on public trust and who blamed it in part for the failure to develop a joined-up local and national response to the pandemic, the report says.
The Foresight Group report suggests ministers adopt a more straightforward approach to communicating with the public, taking care not send out conflicting messages, admitting mistakes, foregoing “hyperbolic language and rhetoric” and adopting “an open dialogue rather than speaking at the public”.
One local leader cited in the report said: “One minute it [Covid-19] will all be over by Christmas, the next minute Christmas is cancelled. We are seemingly no longer even following the science. The public is bemused and becoming very angry and public messages have lost credibility.”
Another said: “The risk is that we are starting to lack integrity with the public and will ultimately lose their trust.”
The government has been consistently criticised by MPs and council leaders for hyping-up policies as “world-beating”, for setting then failing to hit self-imposed targets, such as on Covid testing, and for adopting a centralised, top-down approach that cuts local partners out of policy decision-making.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, accused the government of “operating under the misguided, arrogant and counterproductive view that ‘Whitehall knows best’, that decisions can be made behind closed doors, without any real consultation or even picking up the phone to those on the frontline.”
The Foresight report is based on data collected in mid-September from 160 professionals in local government, NHS, fire and police services, and voluntary groups involved in local resilience forums – bodies set up in 42 areas of England and Wales to prepare for and respond to major incidents and catastrophic events.
It is the latest of over 50 papers compiled by the Foresight Group since it was set up in March to help shape and inform ministers’ pandemic response by drawing on the expertise and experience of local emergency experts. Until their publication this week the reports were internal documents classified as “official/sensitive.”
The chair of C-19 National Foresight Group, Shaun West, said although the reports had helped refine and influence local practice after being distributed to local resilience forums, local councils and government departments, they appeared to have had little impact in the upper echelons of government and Whitehall.
“[Lessons have]… been shared with those in a position to inform and influence national policy. At times, in my view, this has been met with a pedestrian and perfunctory response and I am not convinced, despite excellent civil servants on our group, that our foresight has penetrated the ministerial ceiling,” he said.
The decision to publish the reports was to help inform public discussion of the pandemic and shape and inform policy, he said. “We must take advantage of this learning that comes from local communities and resilience forums that try so hard to save lives, relieve suffering and support our local communities.”
The report adds that local Covid managers feel ministers do not grasp the urgency of the imminent convergence of the coronavirus crisis, Brexit, severe winter weather and seasonal flu, and warns that frontline NHS, police, fire, local government, and charity workers were suffering serious burnout and fatigue.
It says there is widespread belief that ministers were not interested in encouraging local expertise when it came to tackling coronavirus, and a general feeling that – even after six months – local partners were neither trusted nor understood by ministers, hampering attempts to integrate national and local Covid responses.
It adds: “If government leaders do not communicate effectively (clearly and coordinated) in response to local, national, and global public health threats, society inevitably becomes chaotic and anarchical as people experience instability.”
A leaked Foresight Group report in May highlighted that the top-down, uncommunicative and controlling approach to the crisis by central government was hampering local responses to the Covid crisis.
Source: The Guardian
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