Responding to Crises

by ukcivilservant

I have been waiting for a quiet period in which to publish the advice which experienced officials will bear in mind, and share with Ministers, when they face a new crisis or emergency. However … as the Government appears to have ignored pretty much all this advice when responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as there is no quiet period on the horizon, I am publishing it now, annotated with examples of the errors that seem to have been made over recent months. 

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This note summarises best government practice when responding to serious crises.

The Initial Response

It can be difficult to know how to react to a rapidly growing threat. 

There should be well-practised plans to help you cope with predictable emergencies, together with appropriate resources.  Even so – and more likely if not so – you may need to take strong action early in the crisis, when the threat appears small.  But you should nevertheless take the time – maybe just a few hours or a couple of days – to listen to experts, to discover, to organise, and to absorb what information and knowledge is available.  Then act decisively.

Ignore those that tell you not to ‘over-react’.  A significant proportion of the population and the media will continue to deny reality, even as things fall apart.  Others accept the new reality too easily. 

  • Example:-  Well over 1,000 were dying each day at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, and yet this horrendous total seemed to be accepted with a shrug by large sections of the population.

Then Organise …

One person should be given clear, full-time cross-Whitehall responsibility for leading the response to the crisis.   That person should confine him/herself to taking strategic decisions.  Tactical decision making should be left to those on the ground.

  • Example:  It was never clear who was responsible for leading the response to COVID-19. 

… and Consult

Continue consulting, intensively, as you develop your strategies in response to the crisis.  Again, consultation need not be time consuming, but it should include all those who might reasonably wish to be consulted.  This will greatly increase the chances that your strategies will be effective – and accepted by consultees, even if they had argued against them.  Modern communications, including social media, will allow you to summarise issues, suggest ways forward, and seek comments, against very tight timetables. 

  • Example: The teachers unions were not properly consulted before the initial announcement that schools were to be reopened for certain age groups.

Try to identify and allow for unintended consequences.

Measures that might be seem attractive so as to ensure public safety/security do not necessarily have priority over consequences including damage to human rights …  nor do they always trump economic damage.  Ministers – and if necessary Parliament – need to make these judgments and agree the necessary compromises.

  • Non-COVID example:   The US emergency response to 9/11 led to all borders being closed.  This severely damaged companies operating supply chains over the Canadian border.

This is Not Politics as Normal

The public have a sort of unwritten psychological contract with those in power. We expect that the police will treat us with respect.  We expect that the government will ensure access to impartial justice.  And we expect governments to tell us the truth, set politics aside and do everything in their power to protect us when crises occur. Much follows from this:-

Don’t promise, unless you are near certain to be able to deliverAnd try to avoid announcing ‘targets’. 

  • Targets are, by definition, often missed.  They initially reassure the public that concrete steps are being taken.  But they focus media attention and destroy confidence if they are not met.
  • And targets rarely yield the most effective use of resource within government.  They can galvanise officials.  But they can lead to excessive resource being needed at the expense of other important areas. 

Instead, explain what you are doing, and the extent to which you depend on others, and on technology being made to work.  

Examples: 

  • There were numerous missed targets for the introduction of effective testing and contact tracing systems, not least the ‘world-beating test track & trace system’ promised for 1 June.
    • Credit for ‘world-beating’ solutions would be better claimed if and when the solutions worked.
  • School reopening was announced without it being clear how all children could be kept 1 or 2 metres apart without acquiring extra classroom space and extra teachers.
  • Relaxed lockdown rules often seemed illogical, or at least poorly explained.  Why could we meet only one parent at a time?  Was it realistic to allow lovers to meet as long as they stayed 1 metre apart?!
  • Ventilator manufacture:-  Let’s invite every manufacturer to bid to build ventilators!  How hard can it be to build them?  Answer – It is very hard!  It is extremely difficult to build a controllable machine that will reliably – and over several weeks – deliver exactly the right mixture and pressure of gasses to the damaged lungs of a very sick person.

Be agile.  Learn.  Don’t Blame.  Admit errors, but make it clear that lessons have been learned. You won’t convince everyone, and your political opponents will criticise your ‘U-turns’, but most of the public will credit you for identifying things that are going wrong, and addressing them.

Examples: 

Failure to respond confidently and effectively to concerns about:

  • Shortages of PPE
  • Deaths in Care Homes
  • Higher mortality rates amongst the BAME population

Lead by Example. Ministers and senior officials must comply with their own legislation, and follow their own guidelines, or else they will lose moral authority, and will encourage others to ignore the same rules.

Examples:

  • The Prime Minister, in the early days, seemed disinclined to follow his own social distancing and other guidance. (But he caught COVID-19 and nearly died, which – ironically – probably did much to encourage the rest of us to be more careful.)
  • Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham and Stanley Johnson’s trip to Greece will have damaged the public’s faith in the Government, particularly because Ministers refused to accept that guidance had been breached.

Provide Accurate Information. Once reliable information becomes available it should be published in a form that allows it to be easily understood, and not presented in a way that appears particularly favourable to the Government’s image.

Example:- It should not have been possible for the Head of the UK’s Statistics Authority to write to the Health Secretary about COVID testing data in these terms:

  • I warmly welcome of course your support for the Code Of Practice for Statistics but the testing statistics still fall well short of its expectations. It is not surprising that, given their inadequacy, data for testing are so widely criticised and often mistrusted.

Communications

Identify – ideally only one person – who will take responsibility for telling the public what is happening.

In general, it is probably best if the spokesperson is not a politician, given public distrust of that species, and given the possibility that they will not listen to communications advice.  Also, they will attract political questions which will impede clear communication of important messaging.

An (otherwise not well known) expert is often best, such as the Chief Veterinary or Medical Officer.

  • They should aim to demonstrate calmness, confidence, trustworthiness and competence. 
  • They should remember that 90% of the information initially reaching the crisis management team will be wrong, so they should not go into detail.  (But see above for the need for honesty and accuracy once reliable data becomes available.)
  • Once reliable facts are available, they should focus on communicating that information. (Click here to read excellent advice from Alastair Campbell.)

Examples:   

  • Politicians fronting the daily COVID press conferences have frequently been so worried about ‘Gotcha!’ questions that they have been unable to give sensible answers to straight questions.  They have also felt it necessary to offer promises which cannot be kept, this diminishing trust in the government’s ability to cope with the crisis.
  • Pre-COVID – During a fuel supply crisis, a senior politician encouraged the public to hoard petrol in jerry cans kept in garages … forgetting that hoarding should never be encouraged, not everyone has a garage, and petrol is highly flammable.

Ensure that your decisions, regulations and guidance can be easily communicated.  If not, there may be a problem with the policies.

Examples: 

  • ‘Plain English’ guidance – a bit like the Highway Code – would have been very helpful in summarising lockdown guidance as it develops.
  • The preparation of such guidance would most likely have exposed some of the apparent illogicalities and/or impracticalities in the developing guidance.
  • Many lockdown relaxation decisions were pre-briefed to the media, in general terms only, sometimes many days before they were due to take effect.  This encouraged many to apply the new rules (illegally) before they came into force.  And the lack of detail caused misunderstandings and some confusion.
  • The ‘Air Bridges’ unattributable pre-briefing was classic. The Times reported that “travel sites were inundated with demand for [overseas] summer breaks” … until … Home Secretary Priti Patel warned that “these measures won’t come into force overnight … there will be an announcement in the next few days … [the public should wait and] listen to the advice”.
  • The local lockdown strategy was described as “whack-a-mole”, but no one could tell from this who was supposed to do the whacking, or what sort of mallet to use. It would have been better to explain quite clearly what would trigger local lockdowns, and which powers sit centrally and which locally.

But do not simplify complex messages for specialist audiences.  Encourage and trust intermediaries to communicate as necessary to their readers and members.

Although you will wish to make full use of social media, the broadcast and print media are an important intermediary in communicating with the public in times of emergency.  They need to be assisted and respected.

Do not unveil longer term strategies without significant detail being in place.  You must be able to answer obvious questions. 

Examples:- 

  • Quarantine policy was confused:-  Initially no quarantine, then quarantine for everyone, then ‘air bridges’, then a ‘traffic light’ system, then … silence!
  • Testing and ‘test & trace’ were sometimes briefed as absolutely vital, and sometimes as unimportant.
  • The Joint Biosecurity Centre was announced as having a key role in setting the COVID alert level, which would in turn inform lockdown/relaxation policy. Many weeks later, and well after significant relaxation decisions had been taken (and after a renewed lockdown in Leicester) the centre had still not formally come into existence.

Prepare to be blamed.  The over-adversarial nature of UK politics cannot be totally wished away, so it should be handled as a formal risk to your plans – a risk that should be mitigated in an open way.

Do not promise regular press conferences.  The absence of worthwhile announcements soon leads to excessive spin, empty promises, repackaged repetitive statements, and consequential lack of trust  – plus wasted official and Ministerial time. 

  • Example:  It was a mistake to promise daily press conferences during the COVID-19 crisis.

See ‘further reading’ below for communications advice contained in the conclusions of the BSE Inquiry.

Further Reading

More detailed advice on handling risks to health and safety, including communications advice, may be found here.

Here is an extract from the conclusions of the BSE Inquiry:

  • To establish credibility it is necessary to generate trust
  • Trust can only be generated by openness
  • Openness requires recognition of uncertainty, where it exists
  • The public should be trusted to respond rationally to openness
  • Scientific investigation of risk should be open and transparent
  • The advice and reasoning of advisory committees should be made public
  • The trust that the public has in the Chief Medical Officer is precious and should not be put at risk
  • Any advice given by a CMO or advisory committee should be, and be seen to be, objective and independent of government.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government