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On Brexit and coronavirus the public need clarity, not mixed messaging

On Brexit and coronavirus the public need clarity, not mixed messaging

The Public Accounts Committee says the government must not "repeat mistakes of its ‘Get ready for Brexit’ campaign"

4 min read

The public could be left confused if the Government is unable to handle simultaneous information campaigns on Covid-19 and Brexit

The Public Accounts Committee has this morning published its report on the government’s ‘Get ready for Brexit’ campaign. This was a public information campaign last year, launched two months before the UK was due to leave the EU. It aimed to inform everyone in the country about what they needed to do to prepare for a number of possible outcomes – some of which had the potential to cause significant disruption.

The committee has a number of concerns about the effectiveness of the campaign. The government must urgently take on board our findings, and ensure its current and future public information campaigns do not repeat the mistakes of ‘Get ready for Brexit’.

The Cabinet Office only started planning this vital campaign at the last minute, after a number of different departments reported that one was needed urgently.

The Public Accounts Committee had been critical in a number of previous reports about poor communication with a number of sectors which would need to prepare for Brexit – from hauliers to vets.

When it launched, the campaign only had clear targets for two of its 26 priority actions. The point of the campaign was to change the public’s behaviour. The campaign started later than it should have, and as a result, businesses did not have enough time to prepare properly. Even though the government planned to spend £100 million on the campaign, it didn’t do enough to consider where the money would do the most good. It ended up allocating twice as much money to advertising to raise awareness as it did to activities targeted at specific groups, even though it thought the targeted elements were what would actually change behaviour.

The UK is now in a transition period, which is currently due to end on 31 December. The government has yet to agree with the EU what the future relationship between the UK and EU will be and the apparent gap between the two sides’ negotiating positions suggests a wide range of outcomes are still possible. Businesses and individuals may once again have to move swiftly to ensure they are adequately prepared, and it is likely that another communications campaign will be needed.  

The Cabinet Office is also leading the public information campaign to slow the spread of COVID-19. Like the ‘Get ready for Brexit’ campaign, this campaign is complex, and requires co-ordination of a number of government departments. This campaign needs to clearly and effectively communicate what everyone needs to do, as public health guidance evolves. The COVID-19 campaign is expected to cost £217 million, more than twice as much as the government budgeted for the ‘Get ready for Brexit’ campaign, and almost five times as much as it actually spent.

When we took evidence in mid-March, we heard that some people from the EU transition team had moved to work on the COVID-19 campaign, since responding to COVID-19 had become the government’s ‘main effort’.  While this was of course the right thing to do, we are concerned that the Cabinet Office will struggle to direct two major campaigns simultaneously. We have told government that it must set out what it is doing to ensure that the Cabinet Office is capable of running both campaigns at the same time.

There must also be a risk that the government’s target audience will struggle to absorb and respond to two separate campaigns while also dealing with the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19. We raised this point with DEFRA’s Permanent Secretary earlier in the week. She acknowledged that the disruption caused by COVID-19 means businesses her department works with have less ‘bandwidth’ for Brexit preparations. It is likely that this is also true more generally. Smaller businesses, in particular, may need more time to prepare and it is important that future campaigns recognise this.

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