January 26, 2022

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U.K.’s Virus Response Blunted by Missed Targets, Moved Goalposts

(Bloomberg) — On March 25, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said 250,000 people a day would “hopefully very soon” be tested for coronavirus. Near three weeks later, the country is nowhere near that figure.

The gap between Johnson’s statement and reality is a striking example of a problem that has hurt the British government throughout its response to the pandemic: over-optimism and under-delivery.

“Expectation-setting is clearly an issue,” said Mark Flanagan, chief executive officer of public relations firm Portland Communications and a former head of strategic communications at 10 Downing Street. “The government will be judged harshly if it doesn’t deliver on the amount of testing.”

From the number of assessments that would be carried out daily — the key tool in combating the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization — to the availability of home antibody testing kits, a “game-changer” in Johnson’s words, the U.K. has struggled to deliver on its publicly announced goals. Meanwhile, the death toll from the virus continues to rise.

The danger for Johnson is that people lose faith in the government’s pledges, according to Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster.

“There’s no point in chasing good headlines, because there will be pain down the road,” Barnett said.

Testing Shortfalls

At the start of the outbreak, Johnson set out a strategy centered on protecting the country’s National Health Service. He promised the NHS would have adequate resources to cope. While the health system has dramatically increased the number of critical care beds available — to almost 2,300 as of Sunday — it is still being hobbled by shortages of tests and equipment.

After Johnson stated the 250,000 goal for tests, the government was excoriated in the British press for failing to deliver them. Eight days later, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a new target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.

Officials in Johnson’s office clashed with colleagues in the health department about whether to commit to the new goal, but with the public perception growing that the government was on the back foot, Hancock went ahead with the announcement anyway.

With 16 days left to meet the goal, the government is running about 18,000 tests a day — still far short of its target.

Hancock also raised hopes that antibody tests, which show whether someone has had the virus and may have gained immunity, would quickly be available in the U.K. On March 24, he said that 3.5 million of the tests had been bought. Nine days later, the government said the tests haven’t been proved to work in practice.

Lack of Consistency

“The one thing that’s consistent is lack of consistency,” said Susan Kinnear, director of international public relations and global communication management at Cardiff University. “They’re trying to allay public fears, but aren’t doing the best possible job of it,” she said, though she acknowledged that Downing Street faces a particularly difficult situation.

The government has also shifted the goalposts as it tries to equip the NHS with enough ventilators, devices that are crucial to keeping the most critically ill patients alive.

In mid-March, Johnson said he wanted to acquire 30,000 of them to help the NHS through the peak of the crisis — and challenged British manufacturers to produce their own models.

But on April 5, Hancock reduced the target to 18,000, and said 1,500 should be received within a week. Instead, only an extra 200 were sent to the NHS, Downing Street said on Monday.

Hancock’s Target

In all, the NHS now has access to only about 10,000 units, and it looks increasingly unlikely that Hancock’s target will be met in time.

Asked whether the government had over-promised and under-delivered in its response to coronavirus, a Downing Street spokesman repeated the government’s regular messages: that testing is being increased, and it is confident there will be enough ventilators.

Despite the mishaps, Johnson’s government is enjoying record popularity with the British public, which is so far supportive of the lockdown and the government’s approach. According to an Opinium poll conducted between April 7 and April 9, the Conservatives have a 26-point lead over the opposition Labour party.

The media should cut Johnson’s team some slack because it is operating in uncharted territory, Portland’s Flanagan said. But he warned the government’s positive messaging and comforting words will only get it so far.

“This is first and foremost a public health and economic crisis,” he said. “You can’t spin your way out of it.”

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