Posted by: John Brace | 25th March 2020

Why has the communication during the Covid-19 crisis been so poor?

Why has the communication during the Covid-19 crisis been so poor?

                                                

Whistle

Peak flow meter (for measuring the peak expiratory flow of lungs)

Many years ago when I was but a child, I used to have public policy questions given to me to see what my response would be.

As one of my ancestors put it, the problem was posed in this way.

There is a barrel of apples (each apple represents a person), but one apple starts going bad, how do you stop the rest of the apples going bad?

That is a problem that is very simple to pose, has many answers (not all of which apply in the current situation) ranging from fairness and justice to pandemics.

It’s an example of a problem where you don’t have the information available to solve it so it’s a test of lateral thinking skills.

Afterwards I thought about the answer to this question that was simple to pose but difficult to answer.

In 1972 (years before I was born), some countries decided to agree to the Biological Weapons Convention. This was a multilateral treaty which banned the production of an entire category of weapons.

Indeed this blog has often commented on the desire for official secrecy in the area of local government.

However, in my childhood there were still people around who lived through the 1918 pandemic and although the 1955 Cutter Incident wasn’t really discussed, there was unease that something similar could potentially happen again.

Now, skip forward to what happened at HMS XXXXXX in 2005. It’s a day of presentations about disaster planning and there are a series of interesting talks. Midway through (despite people present being told to keep mobile phones off) there are a number of people there from Chiron (which has since been bought by Novartis), who everybody stares at as their mobile phones go off one by one (with these people looking horrified at what they’re being told, then giving their apologies and leaving shortly after) as 48 million doses of Fulvarian flu vaccine that have manufacturing problems had to be scrapped (these had been for export to the United States of America).

This was of course a timely reminder about the need for resilience, automated systems to reduce the potential for human error and of course the point drummed home later that if private industry really screwed things up, then unfortunately some people would end up dead.

So you may say, all very well and good but what did I learn and what can you learn? I realised back then that the solution to the barrel of apples problem could be solved, but it was pointless having disaster after disaster caused by human error – systems needed to be designed so that whatever bad decisions (even unforseen bad decisions) were made that there needed to be a check and balance.

People unfortunately are just too unreliable and prone to cognitive bias in their decision-making.

So what is the answer?

The answer is approximately what we have as a society now in the UK – many systems are automated to take out the human factor – but and here is the big but unfortunately you can’t totally automate it – because of the issue of black swan events. All software is based on an imperfect model and that model will always be flawed.

The problem then is you have a single human point of failure, so like power is deliberately distributed in a political system responsibility and decision making needs to be spread too.

So coming back to the present day, what can be learned from the above?

1) People will always make mistakes,

2) You can’t rely on science and technology to get around (1) because it’s running to an imperfect model,

3) Unfortunately people are therefore needed.

Finally, a brief point about communications and why journalists working in public service broadcasting are considered to be key workers. Any plan for the above has to implement internal and external communications immediately an emergency situation is declared, otherwise people start behaving in ways that are counter-productive. This can’t just be one message repeated ad nauseum, but it has to be tailored.

There are around 5 million self-employed people in the UK (including myself and Leonora) roughly 7% of the population. The communication over this issue since this began has unfortunately been poor, with somewhat evasive answers. Although opposition Members of Parliament from different political parties have been trying on behalf of their constituents to receive some straight answers on this point.

Just broadening this out more widely back to the subject of this blog (and you know it’s something serious when the Speaker announces that they’ve stopped serving alcohol in the House of Commons), the Coronavirus Bill continues its break-neck speed through the House of Commons and House of Lords only gives the Minister the power (at least in England whereas in Wales and Northern Ireland it’s a devolved matter but I’ve no idea about Scotland) to come up with regulations as some future point regarding public meetings of local councils and local government more widely (for example combined authorities, fire and rescue authorities to name but two).

There is also concern about the risk to journalists reporting in person on court and tribunal hearings (many of the hearings have switched to rather prolonged telephone hearings with the judiciary having to ask people to repeat themselves).

Although PIP and ESA assessments have been stopped, there are from memory at any one time around 50,000 PIP appeals (including myself) at the First-tier Tribunal stage and those disabled people waiting for hearing dates haven’t even been written to be told about any arrangements to prevent them having to attend hearings in person. Indeed earlier this week I emailed HMCTS and their email system was rejecting emails (I might point out DWP don’t even provide an email address for service) – which put me in the vexing position of either disobeying a judicial directions order, government guidance on staying at home or just trying to mitigate the risk somehow.

However, as pointed out in my Upper Tribunal appeal, [2019] UKUT 305 (AAC) which was successful on the point of panel composition, the Senior President has recently issued a pilot practice direction which impacts on issues such as panel composition and similar changes have been made to how the rest of the courts and tribunals run.

So, hopefully that clarifies that life will change for now. My job doesn’t change much – I’ll carry on doing my best and hopefully everyone looks forward to a point whereby life will get back to normal even if there is a part of me that suspects this is going to get worse before it gets better.

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Responses

  1. It’s also highly convenient for the government to have the customary journalistic lobby outlets for its foul propaganda protected, shielded from criticism, promoted as “heroic” and described as “key workers”.

    They disgust me.

    Every crisis is a f*cking opportunity.

    • Thanks for your comment Paul.

      There are two main schools of thought in UK journalism at the moment (which I’ll summarise as order and chaos).

      One is very the government is doing what – how dare they the people must know! We’ll lose our jobs over this!!! They’re doing what? How dare they!

      The other is let’s just report on what’s happening and get on with the job (the keep your head down and carry on approach).

      Some days I feel like I’m living through an episode of the Thick of It and somebody’s just playing a rather elaborate practical joke on me. I’m sure there were days in the military you had that kind of feeling too?


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