Politicians should be candid about trade-offs and not speak in absolutes
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:
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.