If you’ve been here before, you will know this is not a new theme for me. But it is worth keeping going, not least for the message received from inside government yesterday, ‘some of them are listening, it’s just hard to grip when there are so many moving parts.’ Less good the message that ‘it would help if the advice wasn’t coming from you!’ In other words, the tribalism for some inside the Johnson camp means if the message is coming from outside that camp, better to shoot the messenger than hear it.
I shall press on. What else to do? In common with millions of people, I am not a nurse or a doctor, I can’t run a power station, drive a lorry, or develop a vaccine, but when something is occupying most of your waking thoughts, it is natural to want to ‘do something,’ not just sit there. And all I can do right now is watch, think, observe, then write and speak, and hope it is helpful to someone, somewhere.
I have never hidden my view that Boris Johnson is not someone with the right character or methods to be a good Prime Minister, and I can’t pretend otherwise just because there is a pandemic. But he is the Prime Minister and in so far as I can, I am trying to park my long-held views about him. This is an off the scale crisis, and whatever I might think of him, I hope he succeeds in leading the country through it.
That does not mean, however, that we should stop scrutinising, criticising and challenging. Too much of our media has been supine in its reporting of the crisis, and with Parliament not sitting, an even more important form of scrutiny has been lost. As I say below, Keir Starmer must seek a way urgently to bring back some form of proper Parliamentary scrutiny.
But the points I have been making here and elsewhere are genuinely intended to be helpful, and I have a few more to make now.
- Cut the bluster, the clichés and the slogans. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has presented better than other ministers who have been fronting the crisis in his and Boris Johnson’s absence. But can we please leave the clichés at the door … no stone unturned … straining every sinew … when we got ‘moving every mountain’ yesterday I was half expecting him to tell us he would ‘ford every stream …’ We know you are working hard. We know you are trying. We would be shocked and alarmed if you weren’t. But show don’t tell.
- Boris Johnson should consider doing a briefing from self-isolation. If, as reported, his symptoms are mild, this should be possible.
- Under-promise, over deliver. If they fail on the 100,000 tests a day target, they have a real problem now. I worry they are becoming cavalier because they have not felt that ,much heat for failing to meet previous targets on this and other issues. Yesterday, for example, Labour MP Pat McFadden wrote to Boris Johnson reminding him that on March 25, he told the Commons social care workers would have protective equipment by the end of that week … and that nine days later, care homes in Pat’s Wolverhampton constituency did not have them. Another scandal, barely noticed.
- There is an important point for the media here. As the BBC’s Matthew Amroliwala pointed out – quite bravely considering BBC News is among the worst offenders – they are too easily falling into the trap of reporting the constantly shifting promises about the future, as opposed to the story about what is happening now.
- For people who are tuning into the briefings regularly, they know the core message already. It is on the lectern. Starting the briefings with the same script is no longer necessary. Go straight to detail, data and fact. The core message can be embedded. Broaden the scope of the data presentation from the small number of slides being shown each day. Share with the public some of the deeper data that is informing decision making.
- Think about using film and animation as well as graphic.
- Empathy for the dead and dying has felt very formulaic. Empathy is about much more than saying we value nurses or that ‘thoughts and prayers’ are with families of the dead. It is about making sure they have what they need. After September 11, and the 2005 London bombings, Labour minister Tessa Jowell worked full time liaising with victims’ families to make sure they were properly looked after. Someone competent and empathetic should be appointed to this task, and have a team to assist.
- Talking of Tessa, every single briefing so far has been presented by a man. I do not know the women in the government well enough to know who would do them well, but surely there are women who could be trusted with the task of speaking to the public. It is interesting that among those widely thought to be doing a good job of communicating in this crisis, three – Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand – are women.
- Share the science. We are not all going to read it, let alone understand it, but at least publish it and tell us where we can find it.
- Stop ministers saying silly things. When you keep saying ‘we are following the science,’ without sharing more of it, this just comes over as another slogan. When Grant Shapps tells Sky’s Kay Burley there is no testing at airports because ‘we are following scientific and medical advice,’ that is so absurd as to be unbelievable.
- The experts should resist straying into messaging better left to politicians. I did not think it was sensible for Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, to talk of ‘green shoots.’
- And the politicians should resist over familiarity with the experts. Let’s hope yesterday was the first and only time Hancock refers to virus expert Jonathan van-Tam as ‘JVT’ in public. It was glib.
- Ask the journalists to keep their questions brief, insist they ask one question, but allow them greater follow up if they feel they have not been answered.
- Consider doing the occasional briefing not with journalists, but doctors, scientists and members of the public. The French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe did a live two-hour long such session which seems to have gone down well with public and health workers.
- Think ahead to the issues that you know are going to become major problems, and at least indicate that some thinking is going on about them. Domestic violence. Mental health. PTSD among staff and families.
- Do not allow all of your best officials and advisers to be drawn into the day to day battle. Some of the brightest and best should be thinking about, and planning for, the next phases of strategy.
- Begin planning on the next enormous strategic challenge – how to get life back to ‘normal’. This may require levelling with the public on the need to balance limiting deaths among the older generation and limiting the joy of life for younger generations. A prolonged lock down or a second wave of restrictions this autumn may test the public’s patience. Think ahead.
- Finally, three suggestions for Keir Starmer … Covid-19 is clearly the backdrop to his assuming the Labour leadership, and it will be harder to get heard on anything else. But he must quickly establish his own agenda, on this, on climate change, on the economy, on the new set of challenges facing the country and the world.
- Resist triangulation between Corbynism and New Labour.
- Insist on regular Covid-19 briefings, on PMQs at the very least being brought back, even virtually, and do daily updates in the form of your own analysis of the crisis, your own proposals, what questions need to be asked, and answered.