Thomas O'Brien

We hope (and pray) that we have seen the last of any enforced lockdowns to attempt to control Covid-19.  Should cases rise to 100k a day during Winter, could a temporary national lockdown even be a realistic option for the Government to consider?


In this article, Tom O’Brien looks at the challenges facing both regional and national policymakers in maintaining social consent for prolonged restrictions and provides some insights into the essentials of communication at the time of national crises.

National crises threaten lives in towns and cities across the UK. They force governments to announce drastic and sometimes unpopular emergency restrictions in the hope of saving as many lives as possible.

Ministers have the unenviable challenge of maintaining social consent for emergency restrictions to civil liberties, while simultaneously trying to navigate a safe route back to normality.

How can they encourage people across the West Midlands to stick with severe national restrictions that don’t have a fixed expiry date?

Each national crisis presents its own unique set of challenges for the West Midlands and other regions across the country. Here are a few tips for maintaining social consent for emergency restrictions across the UK during prolonged crises.


Keeping the end in sight

The end of a crisis is rarely a fixed date on the calendar. Circumstances change, often with no warning. Announcing definite dates on which restrictions will end is always risky, as it presents the public with guarantees which aren’t themselves guaranteed.

Missing deadlines for lifting restrictions can hugely damage public support for them. People become weary of endless extensions and begin to doubt whether the crisis will ever end. As seen in the present Coronavirus crisis, reactions can vary from satirical memes to outright non-compliance.

A poll taken this July suggests that 20% of adults are deleting the NHS Track and Trace App, as patience with continuing self-isolation rules is wearing thin. What people thought would be three weeks of disruption has turned into almost two years of lifestyle change.

Designing campaign messaging around shared values, rather than dates, helps to rally everyone around an objective rather than a fixed time-frame for its achievement.

The Ministry of Agriculture’s nationwide ‘Dig for Victory’ poster campaign in WW2 did exactly that. The campaign asked families across the West Midlands to conserve food supplies by eating a limited diet, much of which they would have to grow themselves. This involved giving up many delicious ingredients and going to extra effort to produce far less tasty meals.

The posters didn’t encourage compliance by advertising a fixed date for the end of rationing. Instead, they emphasised the crucial role that everyone in the region could play in defeating the UK’s Nazi enemies.

Victory would only be possible if regions across the country joined in a collective effort to stand up for democratic values. Even if people were not able to fight as part of the armed forces, they could still help the war effort by conserving resources at home.

It was made clear from the beginning of the war that this would not be a quick victory.

When he declared the UK’s involvement in WW2, then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that ‘it is evil things that we shall be fighting against’. He was ‘certain’ that these evils would suffer serious defeat. People then did everything they could to bring a long struggle to a successful conclusion.

A specific date doesn’t necessarily need to represent the end of a national crisis. But the end needs to represent the victorious conclusion of a long struggle. Good must resoundingly defeat evil, even if the victory date is delayed.


Using language that everyone understands

When the first COVID-19 lockdowns began across Europe and America, one slogan could be found everywhere. ‘Stay at Home, Save Lives’ meant the same thing in multiple languages.

It was an immediately relatable slogan. Everyone knew what they needed to do, and most importantly, why they needed to do it. They immediately understood that personal sacrifices in their own lives would save other people’s lives.

As weeks of lockdown turned into months, the slogan urging people across the West Midlands to stick to the rules went a bit wobbly. Encouragement to ‘Stay Alert’ left people eagerly anticipating a further announcement explaining what they should actually do. When no further clarity came, confusion turned to derision.

This video (May 2020) from comedian Matt Lucas satirising the government’s strategy has been viewed 8 million times on Twitter. It was also widely featured by international media outlets, like CNN.

It’s much easier for comedians to tweet than it is for governments to make policy. However, it’s never a good sign when the key messaging behind a government communications campaign becomes a national joke.

Later reference by the PM to the UK beating COVID-19 with a national ‘epidemiological quiver’ didn’t improve this impression much either. This was a shame as that November speech contained details of major progress with both vaccine development and mass testing.

When people are asked to make sacrifices, they need to know that their leaders are making the same sacrifices too. They need to hear speeches that are delivered in clear language, showing that leaders share both their feelings and their experiences.

Sir Winston Churchill was renowned for spreading hope across the UK during some of the darkest hours of WW2.

In one of his most memorable speeches, Churchill declared, “We shall fight on the beaches…we shall fight in the fields and in the streets…we shall fight on the hills…we shall never surrender!

His words immediately struck a chord with everyone tuned into the BBC’s nationally popular broadcast.

Everyone listening to that address across the West Midlands knew that they had a crucial and valued role to play in defeating the Nazis.

All of their fellow citizens, no matter where they were born or what social class they came from, were united together in this single aim.

Churchill’s use of easily relatable language rallied everyone around the same goal. The Allies would fight on to victory. Defeat was not an option.

Using relatable language makes the difference between everyone getting through national crises together, and people questioning the point of restrictions.


Genuinely being all in it together

During WW2, senior royals visited areas hit by the Blitz, listening to people’s stories and sharing their pain. Then, everyone really was in it together.

Recent restrictions forced people to miss births, funerals, anniversary celebrations, family events, postpone weddings and put many more milestone moments on hold.

Perceptions that politicians enforcing these measures were not observing them personally added to many people’s heartache and distress.

We have seemed less and less in it together as the pandemic has dragged on.

There were bizarre drives around castles and ill-advised trips between London and Glasgow. Clear evidence of senior politicians hugging those outside their household bubbles in Westminster only worsened senses of injustice.

ITV news anchor Trevor Phillips summed up how many felt in this interview with an MP.

It’s vitally important for leaders to demonstrate how much they understand the gravity of the pain that people are feeling during national crises. If restrictions don’t apply to leaders, people will ask why they should apply to anyone else. Each time someone asks this question, it chips away at the credibility of the rules.


Working openly with regional leaders

In an unforgettable press conference, Andy Burnham (Mayor of Greater Manchester) looks appalled as colleagues break news of the ‘brutal’ combination of a local lockdown and meagre financial support which Westminster would impose on his region imminently.

Was it the government’s intention to alienate Greater Manchester’s Mayor and many of its residents as part of their regional Coronavirus response? Certainly not. However, this impression was given – and exploited to maximum effect by Burnham’s team – because of a failure to tailor national messaging to regional priorities.

Burnham was able to weave a perceived neglect of his region into a long narrative of Conservative governments in Westminster failing to provide the North of England with the resources it needs to grow.

History has several frustrating habits. One involves endlessly repetitive cycles. While governments of both parties have celebrated the move towards a significantly more service-based UK economy since the 1980s, this economic and policy shift led to massive unemployment across the UK (and especially in the North).

Unemployment stood above 3 million from 1984-1986, under Baroness Thatcher’s Conservative government. The same BBC data shows coal production, which sustained so many jobs in the North, plummeting from well over 100 million tonnes a year to just over 50 million between 1976 and 1993.

These statistics set an unfortunate precedent for policy innovation in Westminster causing devastating job losses in the North.

COVID tiers? More of the same, people thought.

Residents across the West Midlands were asking similar questions. Midlands’ Mayor Andy Street campaigned tirelessly for more financial support for local businesses hit hard by lockdown after lockdown.

It didn’t have to be like this. Measures could’ve been announced in a way that kept regional leaders on side. After all, many Northern constituencies (like Burnham’s own Leigh) had elected Conservative MPs only a year earlier.

Properly engaging regional leaders and earning their support for a tightening of restrictions before announcing these restrictions to the media would have been an excellent start. Timing is everything in most areas of life. In political communications, timing is critical to the success or failure of a campaign.

Working with local leaders could have adjusted national COVID-19 policy responses so that they worked well locally.

Prioritising sensibly sized support packages ahead of more restrictions would have furthered this hugely positive step.

News of increased support would have eased anxieties about yet more weeks of lockdown.

People would have understood how hard central government was working to protect both their lives and their livelihoods. Notions that the government didn’t care about the North would have been actively challenged.

But unfortunately, none of these positive steps saw the light of day. The government’s message got lost in an abyss of poor timing.

If only Westminster had appointed Captain Hindsight as a regional liaison.


Government communications campaigns during crises should unite people around a greater good that crosses both class and regional boundaries. So long as everyone really is in it together, the public will stick with restrictions. Their compliance shouldn’t be taken for granted though. Short-term sacrifices must be rewarded with better futures for everyone, wherever they live.

About Tom O’Brien


Tom O’Brien is a copywriter who helps a range of award-winning organisations to explore new ideas and hone their messaging. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.


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