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PMKeirs, U-turns, and limbo: a Government in crisis?

I wrote a blog in March, just before the UK went into lockdown, when we all still remembered what it felt like to pop to the pub after work, or hug our friends. It looked at how the Government had handled communications about the coronavirus pandemic. A lot has changed since then.

We are on our way out of the other side of lockdown, with measures being eased quite swiftly. That Cummings story is a distant memory. The new Leader of the Opposition is settling into his role. So, I thought I’d take another look at how things are going, putting aside how confusing the easing of lockdown has been in general (am I allowed to go to a single person’s house when I have flatmates, or can they only come to me? Can I have a wedding ceremony with 30 people or just one household? Why can I get a haircut but not my nails done?). 

PMKeirs (like PMQs, get it?)

Shortly after we went into lockdown, Labour elected a new Leader. Sir Keir came into the job with a commitment to cooperating with the Government to get the country through the pandemic. He was quickly praised for his ‘forensic’ questioning at PMQs and there was a cross-party feeling that the country finally had a robust opposition in place.

In comparison, Johnson was floundering. There was talk that the lack of a physical crowd in the House had left him lost and he struggled to give strong answers when confronted about the lack of PPE and testing, the situation in care homes, and the UK’s rising death rate. 

The schools situation

Is it safe for kids to return to school? Everyone seems to have a different answer. The Government was determined that children would be back at school for a month before the summer holidays, so they weren’t starting a new year completely behind. A U-turn on this came at the beginning of this month, with the Education Secretary admitting some children wouldn’t be able to go back until September.

I guess the real question is – why did the Government insist on making a commitment that was ambitious at best, unrealistic at worst? There was much political and public opposition to the plan in the first place – and it seems they needn’t have bothered.

The school meals situation

Let’s talk about another inevitable U-turn. The Government (bizarrely) insisted that its voucher scheme for children eligible for free school meals would finish at the end of the summer term. While schools have been closed to the majority of children, families have been supported through food parcels or the Government’s national voucher scheme, meaning they are issued a £15 food voucher per week per child.

Footballer Marcus Rashford called for an extension to the scheme so that these families didn’t go hungry over the summer holidays, in a widely supported campaign across Parliament and the country. 

For unclear reasons, ministers were sent out to defend the Government position and reject the pleas. This caused embarrassment when the very next day, the Prime Minister changed his mind, extended the scheme, and claimed that he hadn’t even heard of Rashford’s campaign before. Again, people were left wondering why the Government had committed to something that so clearly had little point (the new fund is only costing £120 million) and was obviously going to end in a U-turn. The situation wasn’t helped by Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, calling Rashford ‘Daniel’ in what he claimed was a Harry Potter-based mix-up…

Pubs in limbo

Although we now know that pubs will be allowed to open from 4th July (oi oi), landlords were left stressed and unsure of their plans while waiting for the announcement from Boris. Leading brewers and pub operators were forced to write to the Prime Minister warning him that they were at crisis point and needed answers and a confirmation of the 4th July date to avoid huge numbers of job losses and closed pubs.

Several operators claimed that they would open in July whether the Government confirmed it or not. It is unclear whether the announcement had to wait because of the science, considering the scientists don’t seem particularly confident in the lifting of lockdown either way. At least we have a clearer picture ahead of us this week – hopefully this confirmation will help the pub sector make a full recovery. 

I realise I haven’t exactly managed to stay neutral here. Last time I tried to shine a light on some of the positives the Government had achieved too, but last time so many people hadn’t died, and we seem to be more confused now than we were then. Right now we can only wait and see what happens when the country reopens. It remains to be seen whether the Government relying on the public’s common sense is a safe strategy, but I’m pretty sure that in years to come, comms professionals will look back at this as an example of how not to handle things.

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