Releasing control: what can we learn from the Netherlands

We are just days away from the removal of legal restrictions on people’s movements and activities in the UK. There has been some confusion about what this really means. Are we supposed to wear masks still? Should we be returning to the office? The UK government focus is on individual responsibility and the phrase ‘if not now then when’ keeps being used as a justification for the relinquishing of restrictions.

It feels as if we are stepping into unknown territory but perhaps we can learn from other European countries and the approaches that have been taken.

I spoke to Suzy Giles, Managing Director of Giles Global Communications, based in the Netherlands to ask what had been happening. It comes as Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte has apologised for releasing restrictions too soon and is reimposing them. (Dutch PM sorry for early reopening as France tightens Covid rules | Coronavirus | The Guardian)

Has the Netherlands had the same restrictions as the UK?

SG: The UK and The Netherlands at first seemed to track each other on their decision making around restrictions. What surprised me and others here in the Netherlands has been the push back on government around the restrictions. There is very much an opinion for many that they have violated human rights, whereas those of us who feel they were needed to protect society find that difficult. The rules here have been much more relaxed than the UK as we have moved through the pandemic, with people being able to visit others indoors when the UK totally banned this. It has probably accounted for the continued rise in numbers, which an evening curfew which was imposed, seemed to have no visible impact on.

SG: Mark Rutte at one point said he was trying to make 100% of the decisions with just 50% of the information – which is true, but then when the scientific evidence is clear for all, I find it strange how countries will interpret it differently and make different choices.

How has communication in the Netherlands differed from that in the UK?

SG: Fundamentally for me communications has been more of an issue within the UK. Here, while I may not have agreed with all of the decisions made, I have been in no doubt at any point what I should do, and have been given notice of the change. The UK government I feel has made the mistake of assuming the public are able to interpret their guidance with common sense, and in society that’s just not the case overall. People need clear guidance to follow. The “Stay Alert” move was a really bad example of communications in a pandemic and did much to weaken trust.

Where do you think communication has been better?

SG: So contrast this with New Zealand, where I have family. This article was interesting if you saw it? Words matter: how New Zealand’s clear messaging helped beat Covid | New Zealand | The Guardian I think it helps that Jacinda is a communications graduate, but the comms were clear and they’ve done well – although less well in the vaccine roll out which has been painfully slow for a country of fewer than 5 million people.

What communication appears to have worked in the Netherlands?

SG: Here people’s responses have ranged from those who have been too afraid to go out and have really locked down, to those who have almost refused to wear masks. Interestingly, at the beginning of the first lockdown people were not keeping their distance in the street. Police were patrolling but to no great affect. The government then sent an emergency message to everyone’s mobile phone giving the distance instructions, and then people started crossing the street to avoid each other. It was an immediate change, proving that society needs clear direction. Contrast that with parts of Asia were the wearing of masks is a given, in any virus situation so it goes unquestioned.

Final Thought from me (AC)

So with the UK government about to ease restrictions in a way the Dutch government did a few weeks ago perhaps we should be looking at what happened. The Prime Minister has apologised and the R rate is now above 2. Let us hope that is not the way the UK may be heading,

Thank you to Suzy Giles for her time and insight.

Suzy is Managing Director of Giles Global Communications B.V. and Chair of CIPR Education and Skills Sector Group.

This entry was posted in Chartered Institute of Public Relations, CIPR, communication, Covid-19, crisis communication, Europe, PR and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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