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Thu 4 June 2020
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Dr John Ashton, a former director of public health, explores how the Government has communicated with the public during the COVID-19 outbreak and why the true scale of the crisis is being hidden.

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“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”

Abraham Lincoln

A remarkable feature of the COVID-19 emergency has been the appalling level of communications from the UK Government and its agencies. Flat-footed from the outset, it was not helped by the Prime Minister’s personal vendetta against the BBC in general and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in particular.

This was particularly a hindrance to the newly-in-post Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, who struggled to establish himself in the public eye. The first time he was allowed out seems to have been on the Today programme on 13 February, by which time the pandemic was gathering momentum and attempts at containment were running into the sand. Whitty attempted to sell to the country an academic four-point plan of ‘containment, delay, research and mitigate’. It seems likely that it was at this point that the Government first hit on the notion of hiding behind ‘the science’ if things went wrong.

Throughout the lost month of February, when Boris Johnson himself was all but invisible and a series of COBRA meetings chaired by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock went largely unnoticed, the Government’s communications stumbled along in a low-key way. It was during this period that the returning half-term skiers from the high Coronavirus incidence slopes of Austria and northern Italy were allowed to return to their homes almost unnoticed, potentially planting thousands of COVID-19 seeds.

By the end of February, and just before Johnson deigned to attend COBRA for the first time on 2 March, somebody in the No. 10 team decided that the Government needed to get a grip on communications. Lynton Crosby’s political campaigning protege, Issac Levido, was conjured up from Australia. His imprimatur can be clearly seen subsequently in the stage-managed daily briefings, with their evasive answers and advertising mantras which moved on from washing our hands to ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’.

There was no mention of the delivery of Coronavirus testing or protecting frontline workers with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Rather, there was the continuing sleight of hand in which the PPE requirement was downgraded in a back room meeting on 19 March by re-designating the virus from ‘HCID’ or ‘High Consequence Infectious Disease’ to the lesser label of ‘Haz Group 3’.

And so the dark arts began to pervade the management of this crisis, in which misleading claims and carefully chosen statistics had begun to play a regular part.


Nowhere has this been of more importance than in the presentation of the daily round of statistics, with their ruthless focus on hospital admissions, intensive care unit (ICU) referrals and hospital deaths. It is the oldest trick in the showman’s litany, wherein the peanut is in none of the three egg cups, but up his sleeve, while the punter loses his money.

There was no mention here of the changing criteria for hospital admissions, leaving the frail to be nursed and die at home without the Coronavirus being recorded on the death certificate; no mention of the 400,000 care home residents abandoned and forsaken to take their chances with staff protected only by bin bags and whatever they could find in their wardrobes; of the seeds being planted for multiple deaths in individual care homes and of a similar scenario cooking up in prisons, with prisoners and prison officers and their families alike being off the radar of incompetence and hubris.

Instead, we have been provided with a gross under-reporting of deaths being passed off by casual reference to working 24/7, comments about the complexity of the social care sector and a seeming indifference to the deaths of more than 100 health and care staff, whose lives have been wantonly taken from them by sheer negligence and incompetence by those whose job it is to ensure their protection, compounded by the calumny of disciplining staff who spoke out.

Significant and respected figures such as the editor-in-chief of The Lancet medical journal, Richard Horton, former World Health Organisation director Professor Anthony Costello, and the Government’s former Chief Scientific Advisor, among others, have called a spade a spade and demanded answers. There is a petition for an official inquiry. A Financial Times statistician, Chris Giles, has laid out in plain sight his workings indicating that the true number of deaths so far in this scandal is in excess of 40,000.

And what was the Government’s response on the first day that Parliament sat again since being prorogued in the emergency?

Matt Hancock claimed that the crisis is at its peak. With the constant flow of over-promising and under-delivering, we can only hope that he is right – but the omens are not good. For this is not one epidemic but a series of overlying outbreaks and epidemics, with the impact on hospitals just one factor to consider. Cases in care homes are still to run their course, which are also gathering momentum in prisons. These two settings alone have the potential to reignite a second wave as workers come and go between their places of work and their homes and communities. There are other overlooked and neglected groups too, nooks and crannies, in which the parlous state of public health at local and regional levels have left us naked in the face of this continuing threat.

This scandal has a long way still to run, but the public is no longer being fooled.

Dr John Ashton is a leading international authority on public health and a member of the Crown Prince of Bahrain’s Corona Task Force.


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