Making a habit of withholding information will have damaging consequences
There are no certainties in life. Which is why it may initially be tempting to forgive Boris Johnson’s noncommittal answer last week when he was asked if two vaccinated people could meet indoors. He responded that they couldn’t, as vaccines “are not giving 100% protection”.
Technically, this may be true — very little in life is 100% guaranteed — but coming against the backdrop of increasing disquietude in the form of vaccine passports, EU indecisiveness over the Astra-Zeneca jab, and the ever present churn of conspiracy theories, it was hardly a reassuring answer. How will that convince the sceptical and the hesitant to roll up their sleeves?
Nor did it acknowledge the fact that many of the government plans to exit lockdown and end restrictions will soon be reliant upon the assumption that vaccinated people are indeed “safe”. It also contradicted the advice of the American Center for Disease Control, an organisation that, for once, has been far more pragmatic on this issue, advising that yes, two vaccinated people can meet indoors.
Perhaps it was an answer borne of political expediency, a desire not to undermine current restrictions, and memories of backtracking over Christmas. But more than that, it is a perfect example of political healthcare communication over the last 12 months.
The point of healthcare communication should be to inform and empower, but too often the way information has been conveyed by politicians during this pandemic has resulted in neither. Instead we have witnessed ministers make blanket, vague statements, which often border on misleading. It is difficult to tell if this is due to a failure to understand the science on their part, reservations about the ability of the public to understand complexity, or a habit stemming from slogan-based political soundbites. Clearly it also results from a belief that the best way to ensure public compliance is paternalistically: to carefully limit the information given.
The combined effect is entirely counterproductive. Few will forget, for example, Nadine Dorries’ famous assertion that there is “no such thing as herd immunity”, which, whilst written at a time before we had vaccines for Covid, was still fundamentally incorrect.
It is difficult to predict the long-term effect on the public of this habit of withholding information and being unduly pessimistic about interventions. Whilst this may have aided compliance, in the longer term it will surely result in eroded public trust and enable conspiracy theories to better circulate in the vacuum. In medicine we were supposed to have learned long ago that this form of paternalism ended up harming more than it helped. It is time for politicians and “public health practitioners” to recognise this too.