House Parties for 14 People? The Government’s Bad Phrasing is a PR Nightmare

‘Today I can announce that next week we will be introducing a new £800 fine for those attending house parties, which will double for each repeat offense to a maximum level of £6,400. These fines will apply to those who attend illegal gatherings of more than 15 people in homes.’

Soon after Priti Patel finished her coronavirus press briefing last Thursday, texts and tweets were flying around in response to her announcement that fines of £800 will be given out for house parties attended by 15 people or more. 

It immediately sounded as though she was ‘allowing’ house parties of less than 15, something the internet was quick to pick up on. Whilst Patel’s intentions were to crack down on house parties, instead, she simply reinforced something we’ve all known for a long time: the government is incredibly bad at PR. 

They spend a concerning amount of time (and, one imagines, money) on slogans and statements. Yet, within days these phrases come to stand for the opposite of what was intended by the government, making them look increasingly stupid. 

Remember ‘stay alert’ back in May? How could you have stayed alert to an invisible virus? Who even knew what it meant? This was during the first months of the pandemic when clear and understandable messages from our government were essential. We later were told: go back to work, but work from home, but go back to the office, but work from home if you can. What to do? Going back to bed seemed the best answer at this point. 

Our ministers, in virtue signaling their way to the right side of history, can’t understand that their previous actions had, and continue to have consequences. 

The ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, giving us half-price meals during the summer, was often joined with #thanksRishi, as though the Chancellor was sharing the bill with you himself. This liberal portrayal of Rishi Sunak made him the hero of the government for a while: the generous politician who was supporting everyone through a difficult time. However, Sunak certainly wasn’t paying for your brunch. He was ‘opening up the economy’, a vacuous term with multiple meanings depending on your political affiliation: perfect for this government. The £840 million spent by the Treasury last summer has now given Sunak an excuse as to why he’s unwilling to extend his generosity to maintaining the £20 uplift for those on universal credit.

Despite Matt Hancock’s frequent presence on the national broadcast round, he was completely flummoxed by Piers Morgan last week. Hancock was happily blathering away about how happy he was that free school meals could be given out, when Morgan asked why Hancock had voted against free school meals last year. Hancock’s splutters demonstrated that he hadn’t even bothered to think up an answer ahead of the interview, despite the question being so obvious as to be almost certain to be asked. 

Was it Hancock’s own cockiness that left him unprepared? I think it’s actually endemic to this government. There is an incredible inability for those currently in power to think through what they say, or what it might mean to the public. The consequences of this are everywhere: in the opportunity for 14-person house parties to Gavin Williamson’s hypocritical about-turn on notifying schools. 

At the beginning of January, Williamson gave schools exactly three days to become testing centers for hundreds if not thousands of pupils; he’s now going to “give all schools a clear two-week notice period” before bringing all children back in person. Even our Prime Minister can’t keep the story straight. Interviewed on Monday by the Guardian, he said: “The one to four [most vulnerable] groups are going to be vaccinated by 15 February. Before then we will be looking at the potential of relaxing some measures.” So much for Johnson’s cautiousness around lockdown lifting. 

Aides were quick to jump in, saying the Prime Minister’s words were “misinterpreted”: “looking at” meant only starting to make decisions about lifting lockdown, but our Prime Minister shouldn’t need minions to sort out his mistakes. The public shouldn’t be able to misinterpret what he’s saying. Almost a year into the pandemic, the government and its leader have yet to be clear and consistent in what they say to the public. This is an essential misstep as the public has to trust the government that they elected democratically (if not entirely representatively), to lead us through this crisis. Continued mis-messaging is eroding our trust down to the bare minimum. We need a government that thinks through the consequences of its messages; instead, the government becomes the joke. 

Words by Anna Willis

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