Boris Johnson needs a lesson in communication
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:
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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.
There’s a third possibility, that people just stop listening and make their own minds up.
It seems to me there are increasingly two distinct factions, the ones returning to normal life, ignoring guidelines selectively because they have ‘fear fatigue’ and those hiding away not believing the pandemic will ever leave us, just waiting for the next wave/variant. Meanwhile in the middle, more of us are quietly tending towards the former faction with every muddled message coming from No.10.
Yes, I’m of the third option you mention. I’m currently in a rural part of the US where lockdown restrictions are minimal and everyone is going about their daily business. Starting from next month, I’ll be working in mainland Europe and am dreading the draconian measures that have been put into place there. I was there last year and was surprised by how strongly most Europeans believed in the lockdown. When I raised mild concerns about the measures I was shut down as a conspiracy theorist. It seems the world is divided into those who are skeptical of the covid narrative and those who have swallowed it wholesale.
‘There’s a third possibility, that people just stop listening and make their own minds up.’
Personally I reached that point a year ago.
As did I after Johnson extended lockdown following the 3 week measures to save the nhs. I returned my tv licence, received a refund and the tv is consigned to the loft. I now no longer tempted to put up with this 2 bit chancer spouting his lies. Im 75 and the only thing I’m vulnerable to is this bunch of crooks still called the cabinet.
Properly informed risk management is indeed the way ahead. Getting properly informed has not been easy thanks to our politicians, media and their tame scientists. Risk needs to be considered at a personal level, a community level and societal level. All these risks change with infection levels and the ability to understand the risks those you are having contact with are taking, so you can adjust your own risk mitigations accordingly, whilst balancing risk against benefit of taking the risk.
The pubs are now open again, but as I was not a great pub goer before all this, why do I need to rush down the pub now? If the weather is going to be good over the May bank holiday (as it was last year), I will have friends round for a BBQ (as I did last year – it was 85 years from VE day). The number I have and the households they come from and their ability to come inside when it starts getting cold will not be informed by what the rules at the time say – I won’t even bother to look them up. But will be informed by what makes for a pleasant and sensible event we can all enjoy. If it is going to piss down (as it seems to on bank holidays more often than not in this country), I will do it some other time.
Can you provide the evidence – as opposed to making the mistake of confusing association with causation – that lockdowns had any positive effect on infections and deaths from covid?
There are literally dozens of published peer reviewed studies suggesting just that. Do you know to use google?
The virus doesn’t have wings. You stop social contact you stop the virus.
Actually, there are dozens of peer reviewed studies showing that lockdowns don’t work. Observational data on death rates versus lockdown measures is pretty inconclusive. Apart from outliers like New Zealand, which quarantined themselves, it is hard to spot the “lockdown” country versus the one that didn’t.
Your common sense brain might revert to simple analogies of viruses and wings, but the reality is that if enough people are moving around (estimated 10 million key workers in UK), and the vulnerable are sitting ducks in hospitals (estimated “R” rates of 14 in some) and care homes, your lockdowns achieve the square root of b****r all.
If you use Google you will also see that the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, acknowledges that “if you completely lockdown…then you would suppress this virus. All the evidence from previous epidemics suggests that when you do that, when you release it, then it all comes back again. So, the other part of this is to make sure that we don’t end up with a sudden peak again in the Winter which is even larger and causes even more problems”. We then proceeded to lockdown and had a worse peak in the Winter. It is also not clear how successful lockdown has been given that we’ve had 130,000 ‘with-Covid’ deaths in the UK. What we do know is that there will be increased deaths because of lockdown – you don’t improve the health of a nation by making it poorer!
Even the WHO has stated that lockdowns do not work and are not advised.
What Nabarro of WHO said is:
We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus. The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we’d rather not do it.’
A further statement from WHO: Our position on lockdowns and other severe movement restrictions has been consistent since the beginning. We recognize that they are costly to societies, economies and individuals, but may need to be used if COVID-19 transmission is out of control.
So, what WHO actually said is get control of transmission and don’t rely on lockdowns alone.
Fair enough, thanks.
There is a clear seasonal effect to the virus. Some is associated with UV levels but most is associated with time outside vs time inside. UK lost control this winter largely down to the new variant. We have regained control, where many European countries have not, through the lockdown, which has come at a high price for our economy and the longer term future of our children (thankfully back is school since 8 Mar albeit masked and regularly lateral flow tested). Sad but given where we were clearly headed wrt health care collapse, necessary.
I find this a useful site for seeing what is really going on with the various indicators across various nations. Certainly far more informative than listening to the polarised views of politicians, the media and discussion board contributors:
I would like to both up and down vote this. If you put everyone into proper quarantine, pass food in through negative pressure airlocks then you’re right. The reason for the downvote I did give is that lockdowns were not this.
.”You stop social contact you stop the virus.”
Preventing all social contact is utterly impossible so it won’t Stop the virus..merely slow its spread. Lockdowns will help do that to some degree. Slow not Stop
Why?? Well, its an airborne virus that is very infectious, particularly in enclosed spaces. So preventing its spread by “social distancing” can only go so far.
The Australian health and quarentine folks are fully on board with this but the UK still seems to be in denial to some degree.
Masks might help a bit..but if they really worked then health care workers in full PPE would go down in such large numbers would they.?
The success in the UK is the vaccine rollout. That really has “stopped the spread” .. so much so that UCL estimate that the UK is close herd immunity. I suspect theyll lose their funding and all get cancelled for saying that.
And yet the infection, hospitalisation and death rates following the first 2020 lockdown (when we had no vaccine) broadly followed the same trajectory as those of our most recent lockdown. I honestly don’t know whether the slowdown in transmission is due to the vaccine or the reduction in close contact between individuals and I’m not sure anyone else knows for sure, either.
Vaccination is not a magical shield outside the body. For it to have any affect at all the virus needs to have entered the body. Once it has you are infected, however the body is much better prepared to fight the infection, if it has had the vaccine or been previously infected by a sufficiently similar real virus. 1 shot helps but only about 3 weeks after you have had it. The 2nd shot helps more again only 3 weeks after, but is still not totally effective. Viral load is key. The more you got hit with in the first place and the longer it takes before your body is reducing the amount you have created since initial infection, the shorter the time you will be spreading it and the lower the viral load in what you are spreading, also the lower the risk you will develop a more harmful disease which puts you in hospital and therefore the lower the risk of death.
Qualitatively they can be no argument with any of the above, what it means quantitatively will take time to properly assess but even then given the complexity of all the variables involved there will never be a perfect answer. When you look at the timescales in which the vaccine has been delivered to the various parts of the population as 1st shot and 2nd shot, there is as you say little discernible difference between this lockdown and the first, but how much difference would you really expect to see? Perhaps the benefit of the levels of vaccination we have achieved in the timescales they have been achieved is by making this time look like last time when we were getting less help from the seasonal effect and a generally lower compliance with all the rules – who knows, it is highly complex and those who claim to have modelled accurately to deal with all the variables are lying.
Johnson made two entirely contradictory points. Deaths / hospital admissions have fallen far more quickly than last time despite it being quite clear that this lockdown has not been anything like as rigidly adhered to. Thus, if it is not down to vaccinations but rather to lockdowns, this undercuts any rationale for opening up (which he said he remains committed to) as if vaccinations make no difference then the NHS will be under pressure once more. It is becoming increasingly clear that he has utterly lost the plot.
Some of us were able to see from the outset that this buffoon was a long way short of possessing the qualities required to be prime minister. He is a pusillanimous, self serving, mendacious, shallow chancer. Without question the worst premier of my lifetime.
He said the reduction was overwhelmingly due to lockdown, but that vaccination has helped. That is a correct and reasonable thing to say.
Stop it with the hyperbole. So boring.
Nothing I said was not true. He is all of those things and he did contradict himself.
And saying that lockdown and not vaccination (which he barely acknowledged in the first instance) has been “overwhelmingly responsible” for the fall and then saying he has seen nothing to induce him to alter his plans to end lockdown IS contradictory as if lockdown is removed, by his reasoning, we will be in the former position. He strongly implied that vaccinations made minimal difference. The author is correct – he needs to be far more careful of what he says. But then, that has never been him has it? Communication in the current climate takes on a renewed importance.
It is a complex subject with many variables nobody fully understands. Made worse by the soundbite approach of all politicians and the media. The biggest flaw in the approach has been to try to deal with this complex situation with a complex and ever changing set of rules, which most people bend or break pretty routinely now, rather than through educating people to manage risk effectively. For example last week I was allowed to sit on a bench outside and have a coffee, but when I sat at a table outside McDonalds to eat my burger and drink my coffee with my son, who lives in my household, and no one else around, I was told I had to move as I could not sit and eat my burger until Monday.
I think we are all clear on what we want to achieve – get out of the restrictions, get back to a more normal way of life and never return. We all have different views on how and when that should be achieved, but that is exactly the aim of the phased plan. At a fundamental level what Boris said was right. Cases peaked when the full lockdown was imposed – just as they did when the first lockdown was imposed. Hospitalisations and deaths peaked about 3 weeks later, just as they did last time. The down trend since in both hospitalisations and deaths has been very similar to last time (cases trends are impacted by the massive increase in testing). Vaccination would only be expected to play a small part in that and that is all it has played – so far. Protection from the first shot is incomplete and takes about 3 weeks before you get it. Protection from the 2nd shot is better but still not complete. The Vaccine roll out has gone better than many sceptics predicted and largely in line with the plan. We now have just under 50% with at least 1 shot and just under 12% who have had both. Whilst a significant achievement, way ahead of anywhere in Europe, it is insufficient to achieve the the ultimate aim, ie get out of all restrictions and stay out. Note that deaths and hospitalisations are rising in France, Italy and Germany. What Boris is saying is stick to the plan, enjoy a bit more freedom but don’t go mad based on the success we have achieved so far with the vaccine roll out. All the “take the next step safely advertising” although rather trite is saying the same thing. It would just have been a lot better if the whole thing had become risk based rather than rule based to allow me to eat my burger as well as drink my coffee because there is no difference in risk (from COVID – eating McDonald’s burgers is not in itself a zero health risk activity) between the 2.
There is a significant seasonal effect to this virus and we are moving into a period where the seasons favour us. The acid test for whether the vaccine has delivered will come next winter. If we are back in lockdown then it will have failed, if we have to endure some increased restrictions it will have mostly delivered, If Christmas 2021 is no different to Christmas 2019 we will have to thank Boris for that.
Without question the worst premier of my lifetime.
You had me until this, unless you are a very eloquent 5 year old.
He’s pretty rubbish, and I’m inclined to agree with your critique of him as a man, but his government (of which he is a fundamental part of) has not done badly since the rollout of the vaccines, compared to most other nations.
Let’s not get too carried away.
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.
That’s fair – as I say, I am inclined to agree with your assessment of him as an individual.
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.
The Conservative purge before the last election is looking more and more unfortunate. A lot of experience and a fair amount of talent was lost, just when we could have done with both.
John Major has gone back down in my estimation thanks to his meddling in BREXIT – yesterday’s men like him and phoney Tony should know and keep their place. However he rose a lot when it became clear that the NI peace process was down to the enormous risk he took whilst PM and that he shagged Edwina Currie – not that I rate his taste in women, only that it proved he was not really the grey man portrayed by his Spitting Image puppet.
The sad fact of the matter is all of them are pretty crap really these days.
Still at least we are not in the US. In 2016 they had a choice between a misogynist, narcissist, who thought twitter was a communication tool for good government and a crook. In 2020 they had the same choice on one side, just a whole lot more tweets to go on and on the other a geriatric with early dementia and a crook for a son.
If it was lockdown and not vaccination then why was there no spike in infections when unvaccinated kids all returned to school?
I hope we get a proper independent public review of Covid conducted by scientifically literate people and not people concerned about their media persona.
“scientifically literate people”
Good luck with that
‘Not concerned about their media persona’. Hmmmmm, not sure where you should start looking…
I believe Boris already has a process for awarding contracts to deserving candidates, doesn’t he?
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.
‘Politicians should be candid and upfront, admitting uncertainty where it exists, and explaining their underlying reasoning and thought processes.’
You really don’t understand the political process of the imperative of power, I’m afraid. Moreover, you believe that ‘reasoning’ and ‘thought’ are involved, which is touchingly naive.
“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.”
The lockdowns caused more death and misery than NOT locking down. So, yes, lockdowns played a role in the covid disaster, but a negative one. South Dakota/North Dakota, Belarus/East Europe, Sweden/West Europe, California/Florida. Spot the lockdown by the results – you cannot.
The problem is the fact we are IN A GLOBAL DEPRESSION because of lockdown and MMT printing according to “The New Great Depression: Winners and Losers in a Post-Pandemic World by James Rickards” 4.5 stars, 630 reviews on Ama zon.
And that will kill many more millions than covid, and lockdown its self destroyed the education of hundred millions, and the health of the same, and jobs…. and the Depression……,
Whilst this article was focused on dear old Covid I think the implications are much wider. There is a tendency to quote anonymous experts on everything but without presenting any facts, just the “expert” conclusion and we are expected to believe whatever they are.
If this was a war on covid, we lost, and I hope the Nuremberg trials are to fallow, and Boris taken to the tower as deserved, with his cronies, for the destruction they wrought on the world.
Agreed but being straightforward and humble isn’t his thing. I was more interested in what he said about the certainty of further deaths and hospitalisations due to the loosening of lockdown measures. The unasked question being how many?
The unspoken answer: we don’t know. No one does.
The answer: Not as many as if the lockdown had remained in place.
By Boris’s “logic”, the lockdown must have also caused the increase in cases a few months ago, since Britain was locked down all through the increasing case counts and hospitalizations as well. “Follow the science” Boris!!
Hospitalisations peaked on around 10th January and deaths around ten days later. Tier 4 restrictions were introduced in much of England on December 19th and national lockdown on January 6th. Hospitalisations began to decrease around 3 weeks after Tier 4 restrictions were introduced in the areas of most growth in infections. Exactly when you would expect them to if the restrictions were having an impact. Case numbers vary according to the number of tests being carried out but the number of new cases reported also peaked around January 8th.
Didn’t the cases rise in December as lockdown was relaxed and people went shopping, and start to fall after Christmas, a few days after lockdown was reimposed?
Knee jk. reaction from the professions again.
The complicated messages fail and when BJ reduces things to “GBD” it works. So with respect the I think you may find that BJ gives lessons regarding communication, he seems to be able to sell coal to Hartlepool.
You may get this twice because jk in knee jk is obviously too edgy , isnt tech great.
Lockdowns will be the topic for PhDs for the next 50 years, and likely the differences of opinion will be just as defined then as now. Lockdowns are not a single entity that always fail or always succeed, but exist in context of many other variables in each country. Just on first principles. lockdowns will reduce contacts and therefore slow the rate of spread of infections. All the countries that had greater success had some components of vigorous lockdown, but essentially combined it with other more important elements. Widespread testing with early results within 24 hours, effective contact tracing, and effective supported isolation. This enabled them to lift the lockdowns early and keep on top of the spread. The UK government failed to prepare and learn the lessons a year ago, lost control, and have had to lockdown for prolonged periods to avoid the NHS getting overwhelmed.
Knee jerk reaction from the professions again.
The complicated messages fail and when BJ reduces things to “GBD” it works. So with respect the I think you may find that BJ gives lessons regarding communication, he seems to be able to sell coal to Hartlepool.
No one listened to the fuc*king clip. He clearly said that the lockdown was a major contributor to the reduction in cases. And as we end the lockdown, cases will increase. Therefore we need to be careful. That is correct and completely reasonable.
Can we stop it with the hysterical outrage just for once?
He said with hysterical outrage.
Can you stop with the hysterical Fear, just for once?
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