How “muddled messaging” has cost the lives of the most vulnerable

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Hollie Richardson
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Coronavirus Stay Alert messaging.

Boris Johnson has denied responsibility for the rising care home deaths and it’s now become very clear that the government’s “muddled messaging” has caused devastation. 

Stay alert. Control the Virus. Save lives.

The government’s new lockdown message has caused utter confusion this week. What exactly does “stay alert” mean? How can we control something we cannot see? Why is lockdown even changing when so many people in the UK continue to die of coronavirus every day?

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Emily Maitlis – who has been articulating the mood of the nation since lockdown started – summed up the public response in a nutshell once again on Monday’s (11 May) episode of Newsnight. “The government has struggled to find a new message for this next stage,” she opened the show with, “so how about this one: muddled messaging costs lives.”

Further detailing the exact ways that mixed messaging has resulted in deaths, Maitlis had another powerful opener on last night’s (Wednesday 13 May) episode. “They told us to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives,” she said. “We stayed home, we protected the NHS, but we didn’t save the lives of thousands in our care homes. How did the government’s strategy fail to protect the most vulnerable in our country?”

It’s a question a lot of us need answering at this point. People are angry – and rightly so.

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According to the Newsnight report, care homes were initially advised that they didn’t need to take any extra special precautions against coronavirus. 

On 25 February, government-issued advice said there was no need to do anything different in care homes on the grounds that there was no evidence of transmission of the virus in the UK. But on 13 March, that advice was dropped. 

Six days later, the government instructed NHS hospitals to create space for Covid-19 patients by clearing 15,000 beds. This included sending an unspecified number of patients to care homes, Reuters reports

On 2 April, Public Health England said negative tests were not required for patients returning to care homes. Two weeks later, the government said patients entering care homes would be tested for the virus.

The number of care home deaths only started to be included in official daily death tolls at the end of April. Now, around a quarter of known coronavirus deaths in the UK have happened in care homes.

Boris Johnson has sent "muddled messaging" throughout the two-month lockdown.

This “muddled messaging” and slow reaction has very clearly cost lives. And yet, the government still refuses to acknowledge this and take any responsibility – as Boris Johnson proved once more during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions

Leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, opened PMQs by referring to the previous government advice from before lockdown was imposed. 

He said: “In his speech on Sunday, the prime minister said we need to rapidly reverse the awful epidemic in our care homes, but earlier this year, and until 12 March, the government’s own official advice was, and I’m quoting from it, ‘it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected.’” 

He also asked the government to explain the “10,000 unexplained deaths” in care homes last month.

Johnson denied the accusation, replying ‘No, Mr Speaker it wasn’t true that the advice said that’. He has since said Starmer quoted the advice “selectively and misleadingly” by neglecting to “provide the critical context at the start of the guidance”.

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What makes Johnson’s denial even harder to swallow is a new report that says council social care directors in England warned the government about care homes’ exposure to a pandemic two years ago. According to reports seen by The Guardian, they called for better supply plans for personal protective equipment, warning that “demand for PPE could rapidly outstrip supply”. 

Yes, there is so much more research to be carried out and analysis to be completed. But the truth is that this pandemic actually wasn’t as “unprecedented” as ministers keep saying. Surely, at this point, the prime minister should take some responsibility by admitting to responding slowly to the pandemic and giving out mixed messages? Why is he acting like nobody else can see exactly what’s happened here?

One message we can all agree on is that the government needs to be held to account, and action needs to be taken far quicker than it has been for the sake of the entire country.

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