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Analysis: Boris Johnson’s mask u-turn was textbook bad communications when the strategy needed to be perfect

Boris Johnson was pictured in a mask for the first time in recent days (PA)

4 min read

The Government’s volte face on wearing masks during the coronavirus pandemic is a textbook example of how to bungle an announcement — and this time it really matters.

Firstly, the policy change is a clear u-turn, which is never a great start for clear messaging.

Ministers and scientists spent weeks and weeks at the daily press conferences saying the evidence was not there to support making face coverings compulsory.

But now Matt Hancock has confirmed that face mask use will mandatory in shops from July 24, telling MPs the move will protect staff and restore the confidence of customerers.

Secondly, the announcement itself has been handled chaotically, with Boris Johnson signalling a change was coming on Friday, only for Cabinet minister Michael Gove to then tour the airwaves on Sunday to suggest that wasn't the case.

Various other ministers then said the policy either was or was not being looked it.

The confusion allowed Labour to steal a march on ministers, with the opposition this weekend calling for mask wearning to become mandatory in shops.

That in turn led Number 10 to bring forward its announcement to try and wrestle back control of the story.

On masks, the approach has too-often resembled a bad run-out in cricket

To some this may seem unimportant. The Dominic Cummings school of thought on this kind of analysis is that it is just Westminster chatter with no reach outside the bubble.

What matters, that line of argument goes, is the change in policy itself.

But all the evidence from the public and polling in the past few months, pretty much since the Barnard Castle affair, is that this stuff really does matter because it relies on public compliance. And compliance only comes from trust.

It comes from a trust that those laying down the guidance know what they’re doing. On masks, the approach has too-often resembled a bad run-out in cricket, a “yes” followed by a panicked “no”, then a decisive “yes” when it’s already too late.

Beyond how the message itself is getting out, some think the change has also come too late in the day.

Countries around the world have long since had the sorts of measures Matt Hancock announced on Tuesday.

And the row plays into the idea that the UK has bee behind the curve: too slow into lockdown, too slow in reducing social distancing, and with a pervading sense that the rules are no longer clear.

Messaging that was blunt at the start of lockdown has become more and more opaque in the months since. 

Face masks are a textbook example of where clear, simple guidance is needed. The rules need to be definitive.

Much of that is understandable and necessary, as the measures are slowly eased the guidance is by its very nature going to get more nuanced.

But there is public confusion and - more worryingly for the Government - some now seem less bothered by what the current rules are.

How many people can you meet indoors? How many outdoors? Who is in what bubble and who can stay over? Can you meet people inside the pub or do you have to sit at different tables? 

Many people don’t know the answer to these questions, and the morass of rules and regulations has meant that the message they seem to hear is a mixture of all the advice put together, essentially summed up as  'don’t get too close too much'.

Face masks are a textbook example of where clear, simple guidance is needed. The rules need to be definitive.

But the lurch from talking them down (the UK's advertising watchdog even fined companies who touted their usefulness back in March), to calling for them to be worn on public transport, to now pushing for them to be used at all times inside, does not engender trust.

The Government will say the evidence has evolved on the usefulness of face coverings, which to an extent is true, but it has not got that message across to people - and that has allowed a culture of anti-nanny-statism to grown around them.

Those voices on the right who kicked back so vigorously against the lockdown have now turned their ire on masks

Those voices on the right who kicked back so vigorously against the lockdown have now turned their ire on masks, arguing that being asked to cover your face is a draconian infringement on people’s human rights, not the important public health measure ministers want it to be seen as.

Of course the truth is that wearing a mask is not fun. It is awkward and uncomfortable, especially at first, and it is jarring to see others wearing them.

But it is a small inconvenience you quickly get used to.

And despite those who rail against them and say they’d rather stay home than wear one, the idea that everyone will be wearing them - and therefore everyone will be more protected - is likely to breed confidence and get more people out shopping, not less, and help kickstart the economy.

Downing Street, who after another set of dreadful economic statistics on Tuesday will be desperate to get the public out of their homes and into town centres, will now be hoping that message is still listened to.

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