Whilst scientific briefings are not an unusual feature in foreign governments, such as the US, they were rarely utilised in the UK: the despatch box, rather than the briefing podium, is the traditional platform of Government. Yet, when faced with draconian limits on daily life, the public required direct updates on the pandemic – regular briefings thus became a critical element of COVID-19 policy delivery.
Justifying immediate lockdown, an unprecedented peacetime constraint, was essential to swiftly shore up public confidence. In particular, broadcasting objective facts about COVID-19 was vital to stem the tide of social media misinformation. Hence, the opportunity arose for scientists, as impartial figures, to clearly explain the public health guidelines. Building previously unknown civil servants into household names also provided an opportunity to display the experts advising politicians at the heart of Government, delivering reassurance from the outset of the pandemic.
Maintaining unity, however, in light of growing dissent toward restrictions, would require renewed public support. A further opportunity was therefore presented to inform and educate the nation, involving expert breakdown of transmission data alongside questions from members of the public. Both measures illustrate a rapid modernisation of Government crisis communications, allowing unparalleled transparency in decision-making and direct accountability to the general public. Ultimately, sustained public engagement through scientific briefings laid the groundwork for establishing public consent to a second national lockdown, as the crisis reached its peak.
Additionally, scientific briefings presented a vital opportunity to spur long-term social change. As demonstrated in a recent Reuters/Oxford study, briefings by public health officials were more likely to be watched and trusted by individuals, resulting in a greater understanding of the virus and, consequently, a more well-informed population. Such greater public understanding, shown through ONS polling, has given rise to an overwhelmingly pro-vaccine, pro-hand washing and pro-mask wearing nation.
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