I always write a lot, but at the moment, I seem to be in an unstoppable overdrive. That, insomnia, and really weird dreams in the few hours that I do sleep, seem to be the main side effects of the Covid-19 crisis, from a purely personal perspective.
Since the crisis began, and I opted for my own lockdown on March 13 after getting home from Sport Relief – (ahead of government orders – you didn’t have to be a genius to work out where it was heading, despite Boris Johnson initially pushing us hard in the opposite direction, to Cheltenham, football matches, handshaking trips to hospitals) – I seem to wake around four, and am up by quarter past, banging away at the laptop. I’ve finished a novel I’d started four years ago, but had parked with Brexit raging. So far today, early p.m, I have written several thousand words destined for various homes, on subjects as varied as The Queen, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, trees, my new (very short) haircut and, last and least, Donald Trump and the American right’s wilful early refusal to take coronavirus seriously, and belittle those who did.
Now here goes with another blog. This one is largely based on two articles published on Friday, but unless you’re living in London and subscribe to get behind the Daily Telegraph paywall, you may not have seen them. You may not care, which is fine, but I figure if you are on here, you might care a tiny bit, enough to have a little read.
Both were about the government’s handling of the crisis, and it was interesting that the Telegraph of all papers asked me of all people to write about how I felt Johnson and Co were doing. In recent years, the paper has been so much a supporter of their former (and possibly future) columnist that it has become known in as the Borisgraph. That they wanted me to write about him for them, knowing my views, suggests the paper’s rulers are less than enamoured with the way Johnson has handled his first major crisis.
The full text of the piece is below, but first my Standard piece, which set out what I see as ten vital elements of crisis management, and assessed how I thought the government is doing against them. It is no secret I don’t much care for Johnson, and despite my expulsion from the Party by the (hallelujah) former leadership, I am tribally Labour. But I genuinely tried to be fair and reasonable in my assessment.
I acknowledged at the outset that as crises go, this is off the scale hard. But I said there are established principles of crisis management and now, a few weeks in, is a good time to take stock of government handling.
1. Develop, execute and narrate clear strategy/messaging.Terrible start, then improvement, then backwards, and the testing issue must be gripped quickly. February was lost, Boris Johnson disappeared for ten days. He allowed ‘herd immunity’ to become slogan and strategy, which was reckless and dangerous. The U-turn from laissez-faire/libertarian to lockdown was a comms disaster. Things improved with the discipline of ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’, but there is insufficient sharing of the thinking and data/science behind decisions. I sense also real indecision and division within government now 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.
2. Show leadership. Again, bad start, then better, now gone backwards again. Since the early disappearance, Johnson put himself centre stage and led from the front. He cannot wholly be blamed for getting the virus (though he was cavalier boasting about shaking hands with Coronavirus patients and personally lax at social distancing). Even in self-isolation, assuming the symptoms are mild, he should consider emulating Canada’s Justin Trudeau who continued media briefings while self-isolating.
3. Ensure strong centre. Crisis management must be co-ordinated from the centre, and that is now happening more, but the testing issue is showing up real problems, and the blame game in which ministers and advisers appear to be indulging already will do nothing for anyone. The briefing against senior civil servants and other public officials is pathetic, and the squabbling and jockeying among ministers, evident from reports by serious journalists today, likewise.
4. Throw everything at it. In some areas, ‘whatever it takes’ seemed to mean something. Chancellor Rishi Sunak avoided catastrophe with his furlough policy. Fitting out a new hospital in London was hugely impressive. In other areas, however, such as tests, protective clothing for NHS and care workers, ventilators, Brits abroad – they have repeatedly over-promised and failed to deliver. People are baffled and angry that other countries appear able to do mass testing, and we don’t, and NHS workers angry at the lack of universal protective clothing for all involved. This is far from ‘whatever it takes.’ Health Secretary Matt Hancock finally went into some detail on tests, but he – and we – had better hope he has not over-promised to under-deliver once more. If so, the government is in real trouble.
5. Use experts well. Again, bad start, now better. Early on there was too much criticism of the civil service and ‘panicky foreigners’, Dominic Cummings, as with herd immunity, at the heart of it. It’s right to put experts centre stage, but there should be more sharing, both of data and science. When Grant Shapps, asked about lack of testing at airports, says they are ‘following the science,’ share the science, or risk derision. ‘Green shoots’, coming from a medical voice, may have been an error, certainly not a scientific phrase.
6. Deploy strong team. A number of ministers, of variable quality, have fronted the government effort. It would be sensible to take two or three not centrally involved and develop them as spokespeople (as they did with Sunak pre- election) and include women. I don’t know them well enough to know who would do this best, but the ministerial line-up has started to become male and stale, and the women experts are insufficient to counter that impression.
7. Make the big moments count. Huge numbers watched Johnson’s TV address, and despite confusion over key workers, the basic stay at home message got through. The Queen’s broadcast to the nation will be a major event, but Johnson needs another moment of major connection soon.
8. Take the public with you. Polls continue to show widespread support for government handling, and for Johnson. That support will be fragile, however, if the NHS is overwhelmed or the death toll of patients and staff rises dramatically. It is therefore vital not to sugar-coat the reality, health or economic, along the way. I was pleased Johnson dropped his Trumpian ‘send the virus packing in twelve weeks’ line. The public respect blunt truths more than snappy one-liners.
9. Show real empathy. This is 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, Tessa Jowell worked full time liaising with victims’ families to make sure they were properly looked after. Empathy thus far has felt formulaic.
10. Give hope, but not false hope. It is important, for the public and for frontline staff, to remind people this will end, and most of us will still be here. This lends itself to Johnson’s basic optimism, be he must avoid false hope about timing.
The final judgement will depend on what now happens, all of which will be examined by a public inquiry. For now, ‘bad start, then improving, now struggling again’ seems a fair assessment. Set against the above criteria, ‘not as good as Germany or South Korea, more on a par with the US or India,’ also seems fair.
… and here is the Telegraph piece in full …
A fortnight ago, as the Coronavirus crisis grew, I posted a long blog with twenty suggestions for how Boris Johnson could strengthen his strategic communications. I sent the blog to civil servants and ministers I know, and it seems to have taken in the helpful spirit in which it was intended.
In part, yes, it was based on a less than fulsome assessment of the politics and character of the Prime Minister. But more than that, it was based on lessons learned the hard way from crisis management with New Labour, what we did well, what we did less well – I could write thick volumes on both – and how they could be applied today.
I can summarise the central points as follows: government briefings need to provide more fact, less rhetoric; more detail, less bluster; cut the homilies and rambles; ditch the snappy one-liners like ‘we’ll send the virus packing;’ more empathy for dead and dying, and carers; above all more explanation of the decision-making process, more sharing of the science and data; use of graphics and film to explain; a broader ministerial team; and please, comb your bloody hair.
Since then of course, Mr Johnson has been self-isolating, and I do not underestimate how much more difficult that has made things. But on every single point above, they are falling short. Belatedly they have begun to provide some data in graphic form, but on Wednesday, with Business Secretary Alok Sharma fronting the worst of the government briefings so far, when country and media were crying out for data on tests, protective equipment and ventilators, we got homilies on small businesses and data on car and Tube journeys.
My first point two weeks ago was this: ‘Start all briefings with factual updates. How many cases? How many deaths? How many full recoveries? Stats on NHS activity. Stats on Covid-19 tests. Stats on NHS staff tests, and sickness. Stats on ventilators. Stats on protective equipment. Stats on retired NHS staff returning. Use visuals and graphics. Detail, detail, detail.’ I find it incomprehensible that it took them days to get to doing some of the data, but essentially only cases and deaths.
It is easy to dismiss all communications as ‘spin,’ as the Telegraph and Mr Johnson did regularly in the Blair years. But in a crisis, communications really matters. It must be embedded in strategy. When making difficult decisions and presenting difficult choices, government must take the public into its confidence.
The public will cut the government slack, especially in a crisis as difficult as this. But goodwill is not infinite, and the support expressed in polls – on which they are far too focused from what I hear – will evaporate if the NHS is overwhelmed, if the death rate rises dramatically, and this is linked in the public mind to incompetence. The testing issue is draining goodwill and eroding confidence. People literally cannot understand why the government has failed to deliver on endlessly repeated promises to ‘ramp up,’ one phrase among many that should be banished. Nor can they understand why many frontline staff do not have the protective equipment they need.
If a situation is bad, say so. Say how bad. Try to explain why it is so bad and, more importantly, how you intend to fix it. Set out a plan. I am sure I was not alone on Wednesday, yelling at the TV as Alok Sharma and Yvonne Doyle, medical director of Public Health England, trotted out the same clichés and warm words we have been hearing for days. Health Secretary Matt Hancock belatedly went into detail on tests, but he – and we – had better hope he has not over-promised to under-deliver once more, with his promise of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month.
The situation requires total frankness and absolute rigour on detail. How anyone could have gone into that Sharma-Doyle briefing without an answer to the question – how many NHS staff have been tested and what is that as a proportion of the total? – is beyond me.
Only if the Prime Minister is honest about the situation will he maintain public confidence and understanding for the decisions made to seek to improve it. Charisma and wit won’t take you far in a crisis. The only quality people want to see in him right now, friend and foe, is competence, the ability to make the right decisions for the right reasons, and explain them clearly.
My definition of a crisis is ‘an event or situation that threatens to overwhelm and even destroy you or your organisation unless the right decisions are taken.’ It is about the decisions, of course. But it is also about how you communicate them. On both decision-making and comms, looking at the testing and protective equipment issues in particular, Johnson is letting down himself, and more importantly, the country.
He still has time. But, if I can quote the note stuck to my desk for part of the time I was in Downing Street, he needs to ‘Get. A. Grip.’