With the UK on the verge of a third national lockdown and schools across the country closing their doors, it is hard to believe that less than three weeks ago the government was insisting its three-tier system was sufficient and five days of Christmas mixing could go ahead.
It was 15 December when Boris Johnson overruled scientists’ advice and told the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland he would face down calls to cancel Christmas.
Just four days later, swathes of the country were in a new tier 4 with festive mixing cancelled. More regions followed within days.
Then three days before Christmas, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggested evidence showed infections would soar if schools were allowed to open as normal.
Yet allies of the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, briefed hard that he was mounting a counterattack to stop schools from closing, before Johnson yet again bowed to the inevitable last week and ordered classrooms in high-risk areas to shut to most pupils.
Conservative MPs are united in their deep frustration at the chaos – but are split on its root cause.
Many blame the government’s communications’ strategy, which has never fully recovered since cabinet ministers were ordered to defend Dominic Cummings as a model father after he was accused of flouting lockdown rules. Others point to the birth of the “stay alert” slogan in May as the moment where public compliance began to give way to ridicule.
But communications chaos alone does not explain the flip-flopping and about-turns when it comes to policy and strategy, critics say. Often the sequence goes: news of government scientific advisers’ grave warnings leak, ministers sombrely opine on the need to act – and there follows a days-long vacuum of information set against a backdrop of growing and increasingly urgent calls for action.
Last week there were stark and repeated warnings about growing pressure on the NHS, as cases surpassed 50,000 day after day. On Sunday the prime minister said there was “no question” England would need tougher Covid lockdown rules soon, echoed by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, on Monday morning. It took 36 hours for the next steps to become clear. But in that vacuum, there is no transparent strategy for how action is decided.
Though the UK is in a bleak situation, some MPs who blame communications say the government’s strategy and policy have not differed hugely from other countries that have also found themselves in deep difficulties.
“The comms is [a] key problem. Underneath it all, the approach of most countries has been broadly similar,” one Tory MP said. “The key thing is to project competence with your ministers and your delivery. We have done neither. But the delivery bit can only be done with decisive decision-making.”
Government communications has been beset by leaks in addition to strategic decisions to hand key announcements to certain papers or broadcasters, meaning public information filters out in the strangest of ways.
Several MPs pointed to the near-farcical news of the new tier 4 and the cancellation of Christmas for many – which emerged via tweets from the Sunday Times deputy political editor, Caroline Wheeler, who got the leak. However, the journalist was locked out of her Twitter account and used a new account – meaning reporters, MPs and the public were initially unsure whether the news had been faked.
Government advisers will privately say that delayed decision-making and a rapidly changing situation with the new variant of the virus are to blame rather than any communications strategy.
Andrew Mitchell, a veteran Tory MP who has not been afraid in the past to criticise the government, says the government is dealing as best as it practically can. “The truth is that it is the new variant of the virus that has driven a horse and cart through policy,” he said. “I have great sympathy with the government in trying to take very tough but essential decisions.”
Yet there are gaps in the strategy that continue to baffle many MPs from all sides – including arrivals into the UK where travellers do not even routinely have their temperature checked, let alone are required to show a negative Covid test result.
A number of normally loyal Conservative MPs have broken ranks in the past few days to call out the delay and indecisiveness, implicitly a criticism of ministers and Johnson himself.
Among them was Neil O’Brien, only recently appointed as head of the Conservative party’s policy board. In a Twitter thread, O’Brien said the government “need[s] to do something big to slow the explosive growth and stop hospitals being further overwhelmed”, saying the current wave of coronavirus “is in many ways *worse* than the original spring surge”.
The other call came from Jeremy Hunt, the former cabinet minister and now chair of the health select committee who normally restricts his campaigning to mass testing, but who joined the clamour for a change of strategy on Monday. “We need to close schools, borders, and ban all household mixing RIGHT AWAY,” he tweeted.
Once again, the path for the government seems inevitable, but MPs are beginning to wonder if it is the fault of the communications or ministers themselves as to why they keep repeatedly falling into the same missteps.