Every significant crisis or major disaster comes with the inevitable and understandable review of what happened, what could be done differently, and how could things be improved. Is it hindsight or is it a way to learn and develop so that future responses are more successful, efficient and effective? The report published today by the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees makes interesting reading for everyone especially those involved in disaster management and emergency planning.
It is saddening to hear the response from the Government has been to rely on talking about hindsight and how the situation of the Covid-19 pandemic was ‘unprecedented’ – a word that has been more than overused in the past 18 months. This is an opportunity to start to look at what action was taken and how we can look at improving for the inevitable future crises including pandemics. But the approach has been to try to defend the position and all the actions that were taken. No crisis response is perfect and there is always something to take, change, review and develop form every situation.
Two elements came out loud and clear to me from my first reading of the report. The first is that planning is critical and needs to be informed by latest developments internationally rather than from what we are used to. There is criticism in the report that despite SARS and swine flu the focus of planning had been on a traditional influenza circulating. There had been exercises both in 2007 and 2016 but the report states
Despite carrying out simulation exercises, we heard that the UK did not adequately learn the lessons of previous pandemics. In particular, the SARS and MERS outbreaks contained lessons that the UK could have learnt at an early stage.
The report goes on to state that there was too little focus on preparedness for future emergencies within the operation of Government. And that risk planning was left to one team – Civil Contingencies Secretariat – rather than reaching into other departments. This is a situation larger businesses can fall into where they have an emergency planner or a business continuity expert so they offload responsibility for being prepared to deal with crises. It is clear in uncertain times that everyone has a role to play in an effective crisis plan and response. The recommendation that there should be comprehensive plans for future risks and emergencies seems like something that should not need to be said. However, for the UK to be ‘a world leader in co-ordinating international resilience planning’ there is a lot more work that needs to be done, particularly in bringing together all those working in this space.
As a crisis communicator I was drawn to the section of the report titled ‘Public health messaging and communication’ which recognises the positive impact of the initial Stay Home message but notes the confusion that followed with the gradual lifting of restrictions and the differences in the four nations. Adding to this was a lack of public trust following from the Dominic Cummings trip to Durham which allowed misinformation to spread. The report states of this situation regarding trust and misinformation:
This highlights the critical importance of a communication strategy which is clear, consistent and perceived as transparent by the public.
The principles of effective crisis communication put clarity, consistency, transparency at the heart of it, alongside empathy and authenticity. The latter two have also been in short supply during the Covid-19 pandemic. This should not be news to anyone as every debrief or review that I can remember has highlighted the importance of effective communication to the crisis response. This is not looking with hindsight this is a matter of good practice and having an effective crisis communication strategy.
There is a lot more that communicators can take out of the report and the discussion of how messaging failed certain communities is worth a blog in itself. Watch this space as that will follow. I hate the phrase ‘learning the lessons’ as it has come to mean nothing. People are sceptical as the words are uttered but nothing ever changes. This report adds to that feeling as it is clear there were opportunities to develop plans, review arrangements and test scenarios that were not taken. Instead of relegating this to ‘hindsight’ now is the time to really grasp the opportunity to make a change.
Have you comments or thoughts about the Coronavirus: lessons learned to date report published today? Let me know what you think.