As the remaining Covid-19 restrictions come to an end in England, with Scotland and Wales not far behind, the distinction between “guidance” and “rules” – a debate prevalent throughout much of the last two years – becomes even more relevant today. Following the launch of the UK government’s Living with Covid-19 plan, Ed Clements, a member of Freshwater’s specialist healthcare team, takes a look ahead at the challenges health communicators will face navigating the next phase of the pandemic.
There is no doubt that the health landscape has evolved considerably since the first Covid-19 legislation was put in place to minimise the impact of the virus. With rapid testing kits readily available, the overwhelming majority of the UK population fully-vaccinated and a less fatal variant in circulation, there is certainly a case to be made for relaxing restrictions.
That said, with there being no legal obligation to self-isolate, even in the case of testing positive for Covid-19, responsibility now lies solely with the public to act in accordance with the guidance.
Fortunately, from the moment the Covid-19 crisis became a domestic threat, most of the public has laudably complied with the measures placed upon their freedoms. Indeed, the level of compliance far exceeded anything policy advisors could have predicted. Lockdowns and mask wearing, for example, were overwhelmingly supported by the public, being deemed as necessary – albeit often unwanted – measures that could help save lives. Now however, without the threat of legal punishment and pressure from our politicians, will the public continue to be so amenable?
The answer, in short: unlikely. A recent Ipsos Mori poll found, for example, that after the legal restrictions end in England on 24 February, 37% of people would go into work having tested positive for Covid-19. Despite the guidance from the government still very much encouraging people to self-isolate, with no legal restrictions, the public perception has understandably shifted.
For health communicators the difficulty will now be conveying the importance of what were once rules but are now merely guidance. It is a challenging prospect. As picked up by the public, there is an inherent contradiction between communicating the importance of self-isolation while simultaneously lifting the legal requirement to do so. The supply of free testing kits coming to an end in April only helps to muddy the narrative even more.
Chaand Nagpaul, the British Medical Association’s chair of council, further illuminates this confused messaging. “On the one hand, the government says it will keep monitoring the spread of the virus and asks individuals to take greater responsibility for their own decisions, but by removing free testing for the vast majority of the population, on the other, ministers are taking away the central tool to allow both of these to happen.”
For public health communicators then, navigating this apparent contradiction will be fundamental to steering the Covid-19 narrative. With public trust in politicians having reached an all-time low and with the legal restrictions withdrawn, the success of the next phase of the pandemic will likely be determined by the public’s willingness to act in accordance with the guidance, and for communicators to convey the importance in doing so.