Public confidence in the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is ebbing away. The real-world consequences of this loss of trust are serious. But it’s not too late to turn things around – it’s time for the government to reset its strategy.
Even before the Cummings row, confidence had declined more here than in any other European country. In the wake of it, trust will plumb new depths.
This is far more than just a political problem. On the one hand, polling suggests that many people may now be less likely to follow the government’s guidelines, which risks a second wave of infections. On the other, it seems as though a growing number of people lack confidence in the government’s plan and may consequently be even more reluctant to go back to work, spend money in shops or send their children to school. The dynamic of a loss of confidence fuelling distrust was on display in the recent controversy over the timing of reopening schools.
The economic consequences of the confidence deficit could be severe, with jobs and businesses unnecessarily lost either to fear, or further restrictions imposed to quell a resurgence of the virus, borne of strategic mismanagement.
But it is not too late to get things back on track. To rebuild trust the government should overhaul its current plans in three key areas.
First, to have confidence, people need to know that the risk of catching the virus in the community is low and that government restrictions will respond appropriately if it rises. But the government has announced a confusing array of three “phases”, “five tests”, three “steps”, and five “alert levels”. These overlap with one another substantially, are poorly defined and assessed in opaque ways, and are not linked explicitly to the lifting of different restrictions. The opacity leaves the impression that considerations other than risk are governing the pace of easing. This lies at the root of the trust problem.
Instead the different approaches should be rationalised into a simple alert system, assessed by the Joint Biosecurity Centre, and based simply on the local prevalence of the virus, as measured by daily new infections, and its rate of spread, as measured by the reproduction number, R.
Clear quantitative thresholds should be set for these metrics to define the alert levels based on a transparent assessment of community risk. And those thresholds should be explicitly tied to strategic goals, such as the number of daily infections at which ‘”test and trace” becomes operable, or at which health system capacity comes under pressure, so that alert levels have practical meaning.
Second, whatever the community risk level, some occupations will inevitably be more exposed than others, so the government needs to demonstrate that its phased reopening plan is grounded in a careful assessment of the relative risks. There is substantial scope for the government to provide a detailed risk assessment to businesses and individuals and explain how that assessment is reflected in the restrictions in force at different alert levels.
The final component of the strategy reset should be to clarify the containment plan that will keep people safe as normality returns. To date the government has focused on announcing impressive-sounding targets for daily test numbers. But as the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority said yesterday, these numbers come “at the expense of understanding.” Rolling together numbers that should not be compared undermines trust. And in any case, arbitrary testing targets are meaningless unless linked to a clear strategy those tests are intended to serve.
The government has moved on from its singular focus on testing capacity, and manual contact tracing now appears to be the mainstay of the containment strategy. But here too the government exhibits an almost Soviet-style focus on big numbers about inputs, such as the hiring of 20,000 manual tracing staff. Instead it should strengthen accountability by adopting targets for meaningful outcomes, such as the proportion of contacts traced and percentage of new cases who had been isolated in advance by tracing operations, in line with best practice around the world. It would be simple to produce and report such numbers at the daily press conference, and far more informative. Success in achieving such targets would go a long way to raising public confidence.
It is past time for a reset in the government’s coronavirus strategy. A more coherent, transparent and accountable approach offers that opportunity. With each day that passes, failure to take it will be measured in higher unemployment, lower living standards and potentially more lives lost.
A version of this article was originally published at telegraph.co.uk
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