The press conference the Government should give today

I have friends who are communications experts. They give advice to organisations who, up until seeking their help, had pursued the wrong path in communicating with the public.

The process of resetting the way in which organisations communicate messages can only happen if the organisation admits that something has gone wrong. They usually recognise their error when their audience self-evidently doesn’t believe the message that has been communicated.

This is not an easy change for an organisation to make. Having been committed to getting their message across admitting that something has gone wrong takes both self-knowledge and courage. Self-knowledge because the whole organisation has to recognise that you have all been fooling each other into thinking the old messages were working, when self-evidently they weren’t .

Courage because there is no way of resetting communications without some form of apology and admission that you got it wrong. If you change the message without admitting you are changing the message, communication doesn’t improve, it just gets blurred.

It’s no secret to say that the Government is now in a rather big mess as a consequence of their attempts to communicate about testing and PPE. Every day, in a free society, there are so many counter-messages from staff without PPE, care residents who have not been tested, factory owners who have offered to make PPE but have not had their enquiries returned, that the Government’s narrative simply does not work.

We are now only three days away from being the only country to claim that achieving the capacity to carry out 100,000 tests a day (if we do) is what was the Government meant when only half as many people are actually being tested. In order to protect itself the Government’s message just gets more and more silly – and more and more dangerous.

It has to stop.

I genuinely think we all need to help to get us through this. So this afternoon at the press conference, this is what I think the Government should say,

“Today I want to talk about the Government’s attempts to get PPE and testing to all those that need it. And I want to put those two issues in the context of our wider communications with the British Public.

Many people have called the current crisis unprecedented. What does this mean? It means that no one has been through this before and there is no precedent for anyone – including governments – to follow.

It’s true there are contingency plans but not for this virus and not for this extent of disruption. We could have been better prepared, but unprecedented means what it says, no one has done this before and we had no guidelines to follow.

Therefore when we started to look at our capacity to carry out testing and deliver PPE to our staff, we didn’t know, as the crisis developed, how many tests or pieces of equipment would be needed. We knew we needed to expand, but we didn’t know by how much.

It therefore seemed safe to expand the existing systems that we had. After all we knew these systems worked. We knew that our testing facilities were world class and we knew our PPE and the guidance that went with it was world class too. We thought that expanding our existing systems would provide sufficient tests. Given the crisis was a life or death issue, it seemed important to use tried and tested methods.

It wasn’t until April 2nd that we realised this was wrong. By then we recognised that our existing systems did not work.

On that date the Secretary of State for Health laid out a new strategy based on creating five sets of new relationships with private labs, research labs, universities and others to complement our existing strategy. We believe we can increase the capacity to test by 100,000 by this Thursday. We should have done this earlier and we apologise for not doing that.

Over the last week we may have given the impression that we were only interested in increasing the capacity to test without taking the responsibility for those tests actually being delivered to real people who need them. This is absurd. What matters are the actual tests that take place with real people. We have a lot more to do to develop a distribution system that tests all the people who currently need testing. This is new work for Government and we are learning how to do it.

But we need to do more. If we are to relax the lockdown the country will need a daily total of many, many more tests. This will need the endeavour of the whole country. I apologise to those organisations who have previously contacted us to offer help on testing. We will try to change this today. Please resend your offer to ????@CCCC and we will create a working relationship with you.

There is a similar issue with PPE. We underestimated both the amount that was needed and the number of different places that needed It. That is what unprecedented means. Again our mistake was that we looked to our tried and tested existing systems to obtain both a much bigger supply and to develop a much more decentralised distribution of PPE to over 50,000 locations rather than the 200+ that we had delivered to before.

On supply: our existing international systems for obtaining that supply have been disrupted by the international nature of this pandemic. We were therefore confronted by the reality of having a smaller supply of PPE but with a much much greater need. This meant that in the middle of this crisis we had to develop a new supply chain. As with testing, we made the mistake of believing that we could do that with existing supply relationships. We could not. We have had to develop a brand new supply chain from scratch. We underestimated how hard that is.

A few days ago we appointed Lord Deighton to help us organise the supply chain. We should have appointed him before that date and will now appoint several hundred supply-chain experts to help. We cannot allow a single offer from a manufacturer to not be taken up and from today we will employ people to get back to you. I am sorry if in the past you have offered us help – can I ask you once more to contact PPPP@&&&& and we will try to ensure that someone gets back to you to create a working relationship

The same applies to the distribution of PPE to over 50,000 locations. I am afraid we underestimated how difficult a task this is and so have asked Lord Deighton and his colleagues to completely change the way in which we attempted it.

In both these areas an unprecedented crisis has called for very new ways of working. It’s taken us some time to get the correct help to do this. We should have done this sooner. But we are no longer underestimating the complexity of this task.

In terms of both the work itself and our communications about it have not been good enough and will improve.
If and when a vaccine is created and available, the lessons we have learned on supply, demand, organisation and delivery, together with the expert help we have deployed, should mean we are better able to quickly institute a vaccination campaign to increase the immunity of families everywhere. To make sure we are ready we will start developing that distribution system now.

I want to put all this in the wider context of the nation’s response to the virus.

We had two overriding aims.

First, to ensure that the NHS could cope with demand caused by the virus by expanding the number of hospital beds we had. We had a few weeks more than Italy to expand capacity and prepare for the increased demand. In a short time the NHS managed to increase capacity much more quickly than we had dared to hope. Whilst we may have overpromised and underachieved with testing and PPE, the NHS have overachieved with their expansion of ICU beds. This has been a great success for the nation and has saved many lives. Just as we are proud of all the people who make the NHS what it is, the public should take pride in knowing their collective effort to self-isolate has allowed the NHS to do what it has.

Second, with the lockdown, we wanted to bend the curve of the number of infections that were taking place. Again in an unprecedented crisis we did not know that this would happen – that’s what unprecedented means. But because of the discipline of the British people and the sacrifices that you have all made, we are indeed bending the curve.

We need to do better on testing and PPE, but thanks to the NHS and the sacrifice of you all we are getting on top of this crisis – and will do better in the future.”