Covid-19: the UK’s other problem is a lack of leadership and the absence of joined-up communications

We’re finally beginning to see a bit of light about the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK, in particular how the number of deaths compares with the usual rate of attrition. And if you’re a statistician they’re not, well, the black death.

Comparisons have been made with the Asian flu outbreak in 1957 when many more died than seems likely with this virus (we hope.) Premier at the time Harold MacMillan only read about it in the papers it seems.

That, of course, isn’t to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak; in particular the pace at which it hits which overwhelms medical services and, indeed, all of us.

But it’s caught the Government well and truly on the hop. PM Boris Johnson is still self-isolating in 11 Downing Street and, by all accounts, isn’t very well at all. It must be on the cards that he’ll be hospitalised. Meanwhile, although foreign secretary Dominic Raab has apparently been designated acing PM, health secretary Matt Hancock seems be leading the Government’s efforts – although Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove pops up now and again, as he does.

Hancock today has been telling the country that if they continue going out to the park he’ll bring in even harsher social distancing measures. Although quite on what authority seems unclear. Hancock, who looks increasingly like one of those German officers in ‘Allo Allo’ when he’s telling us all off, is out on a limb as health secretary over all this.

It’s his job to knock together the heads of NHS England and Public Health England (PHE) to get them to do something quick about testing, protective equipment and the search for workable medication. A job made infinitely more difficult by the stupid NHS reforms brought in by then health secretary Andrew Lansley – in which he made the NHS and PHE more or less autonomous – in David Cameron’s first coalition government.

Someone has to be temporary leader and Hancock is too engaged on his own brief. Raab? The slippery Gove? It doesn’t fill you with confidence.

In the meantime who’s handling communications strategy and, um, what is it? Batten down the hatches, protect the NHS no longer suffices amid growing criticism.

The PM’s director of communications is former tabloid hack Lee Cain, best known for dressing up as a chicken in 2010 to beard the Tories on behalf of the Mirror. Hardly un homme serieux. For some reason this won Boris over when he was mayor of London.

A really good communications supremo wouldn’t just parrot the Government’s (mixed) message but refine it in a way that helped policy and re-assured a very worried and increasingly disenchanted public.

Back in the day in the Thatcher era some of adland’s finest (or most prominent) including Tim Bell and Maurice Saatchi were crawling all over Downing Street. Although Mrs T still called the shots. Is there anyone around who might bring some logic and credibility to government communications?

Don’t hold your breath.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.