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Going viral: Boris Johnson struggles to control the coronavirus message


This is due in part to the fact that the virus is at a more advanced stage in Italy, Spain, France and other European countries. Experts from the UK insist that there is an international scientific consensus on what measures work, just minor differences in when and how to apply them.

But amid deep public concern, the apparent lack of action coupled with public criticism from several health experts has fueled fears that the government of Boris Johnson is dangerously lax. While the reality is more complicated, the situation has already prompted Johnson to hold daily press conferences to keep the public informed and stay on top of the message.

Mixed messages

It's not like Johnson and his government are doing nothing. Far from there.

A comprehensive contact tracing program for early cases has kept the total number of infections in the country relatively low, according to government officials. Since Friday, anyone with symptoms, even mild, must stay at home for seven days. Other measures are planned, instructions are expected in the coming days and weeks so that entire households stay at home if only one person is symptomatic; and over 70s and medically vulnerable people to self-isolation for potentially up to four months.

But there was a communication problem, no more than around the concept of "collective immunity".

Thursday, a blog by ITV political editor Robert Peston reported the epidemiological concept. "The British government's strategy to minimize the impact of Covid-19 is to allow the virus to pass through the entire population," Peston wrote.

The idea quickly caught the imagination of the public and not in a good way. The supposed strategy seemed to be in line with comments that Johnson had made on television two weeks ago in a clip that went viral where he said that "one of the theories" was that "maybe could take it on your chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, so to speak, to move through the population, without taking as many drastic measures.

Social media memes quickly spread by comparing Johnson to Lord Farquaad in the movie "Shrek", who ran a contest rather than saving his own desired princess himself. "Some of you may die," says the feudal lord. "But it is a sacrifice that I am ready to make."

UK chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said Friday that collective immunity would indeed be "an important part of controlling this long term", but that about 60 percent of the population should be infected for it to have an effect. Journalists quickly began to do the math, extrapolating from international death rates how many deaths that would be.

Vallance's response, although precise in itself, coupled with the government's apparent prudence, left the impression that the UK's approach was laissez faire: Just let most people get the virus and wait for herd immunity to settle.

The backlash forced Health Secretary Matt Hancock to say to the BBC on Sunday: "Collective immunity is not our policy. It is not our goal. Our goal is to protect the life and our policy is to fight the virus and protect the vulnerable and protect the NHS. "

To some extent, the episode is a case study of the complexity of epidemiological theory colliding brutally with the 24-hour news cycle, social media and deep levels of distrust of politicians .

Downing Street officials recognize that everything could have been handled much better. Starting Monday, daily press conferences will be chaired either by Johnson himself or by another minister, alongside expert advisers.

Officials said ministers were struck by how quickly the problem of "collective immunity" caught fire and that this was an example of the type of problem message that daily press conferences are supposed to avoid.

A former government communications official said they should have acted faster.

"The rule of thumb is to show that the government is in control and that it is open and transparent and available to answer questions," said James Sorene, CEO of Britain Israel Communications and Research Center, who ran the press office of the Ministry of Health during the pigs. 2009 flu pandemic. "(The government) should have said (two weeks ago) that it would hold weekly press conferences or twice a week and more if necessary."

Sorene also said that the "drip" of information without all the details was problematic. For example, the government has made it clear that part of its strategy would involve self-isolation of those over 70 and people with underlying health conditions for several weeks, but the details remain to be officially confirm, leaving millions of Britons in the dark.

"Drip from articles, interviews, briefings to select journalists is not enough. It could work with normal political stories but it is dangerous in a pandemic", a said Sorene.

When to stop?

Meanwhile, public health experts continue to voice concern over the UK's approach, and calls for wider closings are likely to intensify.

"I don't understand how their strategy is going to delay (the spread of the virus.) The WHO that I know, from my contacts there, is extremely worried about this," said Anthony Costello, former director of the World Health Organization. Monday "BBC Radio 4 program".

Johnson and all of his ministers say they are "led by science". The strategy was briefed by a committee frequently cited by Johnson in his public appearances called the Scientific Emergency Advisory Group (SAGE).

Its composition changes according to the current crisis, but the government has refused POLITICO's request to publish the current list of advisers, stating only that it includes epidemiologists, clinicians, virologists, mathematical and statistical modellers , molecular biologists and social and behavioral scientists.

The focus has been on behavioral analysis, which suggests that if radical closures are introduced too soon, people will be tired and begin to ignore public health advice before the epidemic does not continue, thereby reducing the government's overall ability to protect people.

Not everyone is convinced.

Former Secretary of Health Jeremy Hunt said Thursday he was surprised and concerned that mass gatherings had not already been banned and asked to see the modeling analysis behind decisions motivated by the fatigue factor. The government said on Saturday that "the modeling and data planned by SAGE in the future will be published".

In response to concerns about the lack of action on the closings, government scientists are concerned that strict containment measures also carry risks, both that the virus will return more aggressively once the life will return to normal and the British will tire of isolation and begin to ignore the advice.

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