Opinion

Coronavirus UK: the psychological impact of the government’s countless U-turns

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Lauren Geall
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From face masks to working from home, the government have been forced to go back on their word countless times throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But what impact might this have had on the overall message? Stylist investigates.

Keeping up with the government’s rules throughout the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t always been easy. 

The virus-related messaging has undergone a number of transformations since the days of “stay home, save lives, protect the NHS”; from the U-turns on face masks and testing guidelines to the confusion around local lockdowns and the “stay alert” instruction, the last couple of months have been massively overwhelming.

And now, as cases rise once more, the government have yet again been forced to go back on their word by asking office workers to work from home, mere weeks after people were told their jobs might be at risk if they didn’t return to their workplace.

As a result, I’ve found myself feeling rather frustrated about everything. Not only because I’ve struggled to keep up with everything that’s happened, but because the lack of clarity in the government messaging may have been detrimental to the very thing they’re trying to achieve – stopping the spread of the virus.

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As senior leaders flaunt rules, blame the British public or dodge important questions, it’s hard to have confidence in the government’s coronavirus message as a whole – if they can’t get the messaging right, you wonder, what else might they get wrong?

I know I’m not the only one who feels let down by the government’s constant U-turns. As Stylist’s digital editor-at-large Kayleigh Dray tells me: “The government has basically made it impossible for us to get lockdown right since the get-go. We were told not to wear masks, then to wear them if we could/wanted to, and now we’re being told to wear them even in hospitality venues where possible.

“Next, we were told to work from home, then go back to work, then stay home if we could WFH. We were told to eat out and help out, then reprimanded for socialising too much. And don’t even get me started on the ever-changing funeral and wedding guidelines. It’s madness.

Dray continues: “I have listened to every briefing and it hasn’t helped one bit: the messaging is hopelessly muddled. And it’s basically led to me cloistering myself away indoors because I don’t want to do anything wrong and put others in danger.”

Stylist’s executive editor digital Felicity Thistlethwaite agrees and says the constant changes to the rules have left her distrustful of the government’s overall plan.

“I had a healthy distrust of the government before coronavirus (lest we forget how the Brexit negotiations were being handled), but now they’ve pushed me to the point of silent, angry hatred,” she explains. “I send despairing WhatsApp messages to my closest friends, all of us echoing the same point: the rules are so unclear it’s a joke.”

A woman feeling frustrated
Coronavirus UK: “I send despairing WhatsApp messages to my closest friends, all of us echoing the same point: the rules are so unclear it’s a joke.”

“We are a laughing stock. How is anyone meant to follow instructions if they are as clear as ‘go to work, don’t go to work, go to the pub but not after 10pm, and see your friends in a restaurant but don’t you dare see your family in the same house if there’s more than six of you’? 

She continues: “I’ll keep wearing my mask, hand sanitising every time I touch something outside the house and staying two metres away from strangers. But let it be known, I feel like a right mug and every day I prepare for the worst.”

For the most part, then, it seems like many of us are feeling rather fed up when it comes to the government’s coronavirus messaging. But could this frustration morph into something more than mere irritation? Could the government’s messaging actually have done more harm than anything else?

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“Hindsight is, of course, a very wonderful and tempting thing – so it is far too easy to say that the government should have or could have handled the response to Covid-19 differently or better,” says psychologist Meg Arroll. 

“But what we do know from psychological theory and research evidence is that individuals are much less likely to conform to certain guidelines (a.k.a. ‘rules’) when they a) constantly change b) do not seem to be adhered to by those in positions of power or authority and c) are confusing/ambiguous.”

“The consequence is not only an erosion of trust, but a more general feeling of hopelessness and helplessness which often manifests itself in symptoms of anxiety and depression, or sometimes outward anger and protest.”

According to Arroll, the widespread confusion over the rules – and growing mistrust in the government’s messaging, could have a much bigger impact on the way people behave as the pandemic continues. 

“We’ve seen the growing sense of frustration both in reports of sharp rises in mental health issues and people taking to the streets, not just here in the UK but across the world. As a psychologist my concern is that it is going to be very difficult to persuade people now to change their behaviours as for many, it may well feel futile.”

As Arroll’s words suggest, the government’s mixed messaging and U-turns may not be as inconsequential as they first seem. This is an unprecedented situation, so it’s understandable that things may not go according to plan – and I know how easy it is for me to sit here and criticise the government for their mistakes after the fact. 

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But when mistakes continue to be made – especially those which put people’s lives at risk – without apology or a commitment to learn from them, it’s only understandable that people have been left feeling frustrated and upset.

At a time of national crisis, surely receiving clear, straightforward communication from those in charge is the least we deserve – and it’s something we so desperately need if we’re going to continue to fight the spread of coronavirus.

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Lauren Geall

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