In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic events have moved quickly, strategies been switched, and new directions taken with only sketchy details behind the headline messages. The messages themselves seem muddled and are delivered with equivocation. Huge concepts have been introduced into our discourse – herd immunity – first apparently as the objective of strategy, then relegated to being incidental, and now barely mentioned – as the virus spreads exponentially. Our government almost hourly announces actions which hardly more than a day before were for the future. Another concept -social distancing- has been introduced .Clearly it is crucially important but the way to build it into our daily lives has been only vaguely articulated.
So how did things change so quickly? How far does our current crisis stretch into the future and how do we adapt to the new normal?
It is just a week since the Chancellor delivered his budget speech. The next day there was a press conference about the government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic where we were told amongst other things, that any ban on mass gatherings, such as sports events, was at some point in future.
The pace of events since that set piece press conference has been unrelenting and unprecedented. On a daily basis the government’s strategy has come under new pressure and been found wanting . The day following the press conference the governing bodies of sport took matters into their own hands .A raft of events were postponed. By the afternoon the government announced that it would likely introduce a ban on mass gatherings by the end of the following week.
However by Monday everything had changed out of all recognition. Up until then the government had been following a strategy which went against the grain of the collective wisdom of how to fight an epidemic. The WHO spells out the approved approach in stark terms. It’s as Dr Michael Ryan puts it:go early, go fast and go hard. The WHO mantra is : test, test, test. Break the chain of transmission.
When challenged upon why HMG was swimming against the tide of epidemiological opinion in pursuing an divergent strategy our old friend a ‘Number 10 source’ commented dismissively to this effect : we are not going to do populist things like the Italians – we are following the science .
Words that are now coming back to haunt Downing Street.
In the space of last week the government has radically shifted strategy but is now grappling with the consequences of that decision as well as the bungled communication of its earlier flawed strategy.
Crucially there is no time to lose . However the government is paying a price for the equivocal way in which strategy has been and is still being communicated .A lack of precision and direction now means that when the government seeks to act quickly, as it must, its announcements do not have the impact which is needed.
In part it’s the inconsistency with which messages are delivered: don’t go to pubs but we are not closing them .
A related problem is because government’s change strategy it is not developed sufficiently the guidance and action planning behind the decisions it is now making. This afternoon, for example, it was announced that schools will close from Friday afternoon and will not reopen until further notice. The public examinations had been cancelled but there is no guidance to schools, parents or pupils as to how qualifications will be awarded. Consultations are apparently underway.
However all of this was foreseeable weeks ago.
Similarly employees are told wherever possible to work from home but neither they or their employers are given guidance yet about how to put this into practice.
We are going to have to adapt to our new normal. This will be our reality for months if not years. We need to find a modus vivendi .Every crisis provides an opportunity. So the challenge is how we can respond quickly to the threats and trauma in a way which will be both sustainable and fit for the future.
It is difficult to imagine a darker or more dystopian starting point. But it is what we have and the axiom – the best way to anticipate the future is to invent it – has never been more relevant.