by Amy Jones
Tuesday, 13
April 2021
Reaction
15:30

Boris Johnson needs a lesson in communication

Politicians should be candid about trade-offs and not speak in absolutes
by Amy Jones

Another day, another blunt, vague statement by the government displaying a complete lack of the nuance that was once so essential to scientific communication. Today, it was Boris Johnson, once more appearing to throw cold water on our dreams of a post-vaccination freedom.

During a Sky News interview, Boris declared that it was:

Very important for everybody to understand that the reduction in hospitalisations, deaths and infections has not been achieved by the vaccination programme…It’s the lockdown that has been overwhelmingly important in delivering this improvement
- Boris Johnson

https://twitter.com/johnestevens/status/1381922550154981377?s=20 

He later backtracked slightly saying: “yes, of course the vaccination programme has helped….”, but too late, in this world of soundbites, clickbait and slogans, the headlines had already been written.

The truth is, of course, far closer to the latter statement. Both lockdowns and vaccinations have played a role in helping decrease cases, hospitalisations and deaths. But his initial statement, full of absolutes, whilst serving to justify the latest lockdown, will do nothing to help the increasingly contentious vaccine debate. Even though the UK is one of the most pro-vaccine countries in Europe, comments like these will hardly encourage the vaccine hesitant to go and get their jabs.

There was once a time when medical and scientific communication was undertaken in a measured, restrained way, with statements caveated accordingly. Doubt was acknowledged, frankness and honesty were valued. Time and again, this seems to have been discarded in the age of Covid. The interface of political and medical discourse has brought out the worst in both, which is not helped by the government’s paternalistic treatment of the public.

Politicians should be candid and upfront, admitting uncertainty where it exists, and explaining their underlying reasoning and thought processes. But that has not occurred at any point during this pandemic. Instead the government seem to increasingly view communicating with the electorate as some kind of elaborate game of 4D chess; their aim is to “nudge” and manipulate, rather than to illuminate and empower.

But as the past year has shown, it is seldom that straightforward. Whether Johnson’s comments result in people praising the effects of lockdowns and reaffirms their willingness to stick to the regulations, or instead put people who were hesitating further off vaccines, remains to be seen. Better than playing a game of ‘nudge’, that you might get wrong, would be simply to communicate the facts — straightforwardly and with humility.

Amy Jones is an anonymous doctor working in the NHS, who has a background in Philosophy & Bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter at @skepticalzebra

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  • Dr Jones is right . But there is an agenda at play. Today the Uk seems to have largely contained the virus – subject to mutations.
    But the powers the govt has taken to control the population are loved by the Govt . It will take a huge effort to wrest our freedoms back.
    This is what Johnson was doing- bidding to keep the emergency powers.

  • I just think he has the worst personal qualities of any PM. The only one I can think of who compares (and I go back to Heath, though very young at that time and I have always been politically aware, as well as being an historian.) in the basement of First Treasury Lords is Blair. I used to find Johnson amusing but now he just makes me despair.

  • I take your point – but Sunak aside there seems to be a general lack of ability in the current government – Hancock, Patel and Williamson are all particularly horrendous. However, I take scant comfort from the alternative on the opposite benches. Dire times.

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