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UK govt’s ‘good news/bad news’ Covid outbreak strategy is so frustrating that the public may just stop listening

Damian Wilson
Damian Wilson
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
UK govt’s ‘good news/bad news’ Covid outbreak strategy is so frustrating that the public may just stop listening
After a year of riding the coronavirus rollercoaster, we’ve had enough of the endless bad news that inevitably follows the brief outbursts of optimism over lockdowns, vaccinations and flattening curves. Time to take back control.

Back in the day when people used to work in offices, there was a certain type of colleague best avoided on those trips to the loo, staff canteen or elevator because even a passing conversation with them was guaranteed to darken your day.

The gloom-monger, the prophet of doom, the miserable pain in the ass.

Most of us would prefer just not to hear bad news, day in day out. While a healthy dose of uncomfortable realism is a welcome tonic to the idle daydreaming encouraged by endless talk of vacations abroad, home makeovers, TV boxsets and cake baking, when it’s neverending it’s only human to simply stop paying attention.

And for pedlars of panic in the government and among our public health officials this eventually becomes counterproductive to their aims. They want to tell us that hope is on the horizon: the vaccine is being rolled out, the lockdown restrictions will ease and overseas trips are back on the agenda. But… and there is always a but, it’s not quite so straightforward.

Because in the same breath, they tell us that new mutant variants of Covid-19 might render the vaccine useless, that lifting the lockdown has been delayed by another month and that those travel corridors offering a flightpath to sunshine and freedom will be shut down in a matter of hours, so cancel those travel plans and best return to Blighty before you’re locked out for good.

This has been going on for months.

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Harken back to one of PM Boris Johnson’s first trips to the Downing Street podium in March last year, where he announced, “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody.” His message was clear. Carry on as normal, just wash your hands while singing “Happy Birthday” twice.

Days later, he was flat out in an ICU bed with round-the-clock monitoring fighting for his life and Foreign Minister Dominic Raab was at the nation’s helm. Good news. Bad news.

The pattern had begun. Once back on his feet, the PM declared that “hopefully” normal life would resume by Christmas, but as that day approached the nation was plunged into yet another widespread lockdown, meaning most long-held plans for the festive season lay in tatters like gift wrapping strewn around the front room. Good news. Bad news.

A “world-beating” test, track and trace system that was promised to be in place by June 1. Four months later, the PM was forced to admit the shambles was “not ideal” as some were forced to travel hundreds of miles for the test and laboratories were overwhelmed by a surge in swabs. Good news. Bad news.

The Operation Moonshot programme of widespread testing for coronavirus was announced to laughter in the House of Commons in September. That upset Health Secretary Matt Hancock but the scepticism increased when scientists warned that mass testing was likely to be both ineffective and expensive. Good news. Bad news.

The fast-tracked vaccines were rolled out quick smart but now we’re told they may lack effectiveness against new mutant strains of Covid-19. Good news. Bad news.

In fact, every utterance of positivity, a streaming run towards a beckoning goal, is hacked down in moments by pessimistic politicians, epidemiologists, psychologists, virologists and other experts so that most of us now wonder if anything we are being told is true.

And the effect of this endless stream of bad news is that BoJo is fast becoming the nation’s Cassandra, spouting his science-backed or politically expedient prophecies that no one quite believes. As a public communications strategy, it is a disaster.

While Downing Street has been in thrall to the deliberations of behavioural psychologists ever since the start of the pandemic, listening to advice on how the public would be expected to react to particular messages, restrictions to freedom and forecasts, you do not need a PhD to know that this constant undermining of good news with bad might get you so far but eventually – and a year down the line we are now at that point – people will stop listening.

Pandemic fatigue has taken hold.

We cross the street when we spy acquaintances approaching who we know only ever bear bad news, ill-informed opinions or convictions that others are to blame for their own misjudgements. We’d rather not listen. Avoid them and our day continues with our step just that little lighter. Caught in their web of conspiracy, intrigue and ignorance, inevitably our mood will darken.

Also on rt.com ‘We can’t talk about lifting lockdown until vulnerable people are vaccinated’ – UK Home Secretary

Sure, the government has been caught out a few times with Bojo and his health sidekick Hancock the main culprits in over-promising and under-delivering. Remember that humiliating and unedifying mad scramble to achieve 100,000 promised tests a day?

Having had their fingers burnt, they seem to have decided that rather than harp on with the whole story, which might receive a sub-optimal reception, they’ll stick with the highlights package. The lockdown will end (sometime). Yep, that vaccine will stop Covid-19 (just stay away from anyone else). Sure, schools will return after half-term (or maybe after Easter). Holidays are on (sorry, now they’re off). Pubs are open for business (in Guernsey).

Anyone hoping to keep hold of their sanity is now deciding that maybe they should just follow their own gut instincts. It is abundantly clear the experts are as clueless as the rest of us with conflicting advice, rampant uncertainty and indecipherable rules changing day by day. 

A little pushback is a bit of normality. It’s a ‘Hang on a minute, but didn’t you say…?’ It’s pushing the pause button while you consider the wider picture.

It’s thinking that maybe it’s time – dare I say it – to Take. Back. Control.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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