Coronavirus is an unprecedented medical, scientific and economic challenge. It is also the first global health crisis Britain has faced in an age of social media in which misinformation can spread as fast as the virus itself. Last month, as the crisis hit China, the director of the World Health Organisation warned of a “misinfodemic” and launched a platform to channel information and advice out to the world. In a vacuum people take action to protect themselves and their families but it can make things worse. The public stand ready to help and will act responsibly, but they need the knowledge and power to do the right thing.
This weekend, the government got this wrong. On Friday morning, the chief scientific advisor toured TV studios explaining why mass events would go ahead. By evening, the government was briefing that they wouldn’t. Off the record briefings to journalists, advice from the Health Secretary that was hidden behind a paywall and a Friday night press release highlighting that police and immigration officials will have powers to arrest and detain people who are sick have undermined public confidence.
Trust matters. When people are afraid, things go wrong. Statements about quarantine for older people have made many people feel stigmatised. In the information vacuum supermarket shelves have emptied, parents are considering taking children out of school and families are left unclear about whether to visit older relatives or stay away. We need a reset.
In South Korea, which is reporting a stabilising trend, the foreign minister cites transparency and public confidence as the key to getting control of a public health crisis. A daily press conference from government is long overdue. It is right that the government has now agreed to publish the basis of the advice it is giving, and this must happen sooner rather than later.
Government websites need to provide more help for individuals, sectors need a dedicated unit to contact for advice, we need a public advertising campaign – at least comparable to the £104m campaign to prepare for Brexit – and, most of all, we need a clear and comprehensive plan for how to manage the biggest social upheaval since the war. This must include a COVID-19 workers’ taskforce to deal with the unresolved problems that force people into work when sick. Statutory sick pay is just £18 a day, two million workers are ineligible and too many people work in key industries like home care that have been outsourced and face huge pressure to turn up to work to care for older people who are more at risk.
We need the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for our older people. This weekend over-70s were told they may need to self-isolate for up to four months. This has major implications in a country already dealing with a loneliness epidemic. Funding for charities to extend their outreach work, the use of technology to battle isolation and ensure people have the food and care they need, and a whole community response that brings together local leaders to identify and support people at risk in their communities is now a priority.
Our NHS will not cope without real resources for social care to keep people out of hospital – but in the Budget last week not a single new penny was announced for social care. We must commit to meeting the £4.4bn shortfall in funding as a minimum. We need a detailed NHS plan to ensure we have the equipment and emergency care beds we need.
This crisis has thrown a spotlight on a country that lacks the resilience to respond rapidly to a public health crisis. After a decade of underfunding for public services we are short of critical care beds and ventilators. Our workforce is burnt out. A million people are on zero-hour contracts and too many families do not have the support, savings, or resilience they need to cope with this level of disruption.
We need to learn these lessons fast. We are only as strong as our most vulnerable. We can raise our sights and our standards and call people forward to aid in the national effort. And we will defeat this together, but to do it requires the courage and humility to admit where we have all got this wrong and work together to set it right.