The UK’s Complicated Coronavirus Response
Sentiment and term frequency data analysis of the government’s statements regarding the coronavirus reveal the changes in the strategy and the PM’s nonchalance throughout it.
For anyone closely following the government’s statements on coronavirus in March, it might have been one of the most baffling TV experiences they have had. The statements, delivered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson varied not just in their tone but also in the level of assurance given to the nation. Every week, British citizens were asked to contribute to public health in a different way. At the beginning of March, the main message repeated in communications was a simple ‘wash your hands with soap and water’ but within a few weeks this escalated into guiding people not to leave their houses for any reason other than essential business. Once it became clear that the hospitals across the country would be overwhelmed, the government had to silently abandon its initial ‘project herd immunity’. But steering away from it seemed if not hurried, then certainly uncoordinated.
In March, at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, UK’s government was challenged by its dubious initial strategy against the outbreak and the subsequent task of fixing the chaos it had spawned. The problem with choosing appropriate measures was further exacerbated by the novelty of the situation and by Britain’s long tradition of individual liberty, which includes the concept of policing by consent. It assumes, the law can’t be enforced, if the public doesn’t consent to it. Rather than punishment or involvement of military force, it deems the exercise of persuasion and advice as more appropriate to elicit public cooperation.
The principles of policing by consent, combined with the confusion around the initial attempt to build herd immunity prevented the government from outright ordering actions to stamp out the virus. Instead, the UK public was gradually delivered a set of instructions on social distancing and movement restrictions.
The language of advice and persuasion proved to be at odds with the gravity of the situation. With the Prime Minister trying every card up his sleeve to strike a balance between seriousness and politeness when announcing the guidelines, the government’s thinking sounded muddled and unconvincing.
But things got even more perplexing when Boris Johnson resorted to self-isolation after showing symptoms of the disease and updated the nation on the situation from his house. He was subsequently accused of not practicing what he preaches, further damaging his credibility.
At the beginning of March, when the herd immunity tactic was still in place, the PM’s statements were full of promise, carefully crafted with vocabulary implying preparedness and nationwide safety. Among many assurances, it was said that for the overwhelming majority of people, COVID-19 would be a mild disease. Undertaking things that couldn’t be translated to direct medical benefit, such as closing borders and shutting schools, was deemed ‘counterproductive’ at that point.
In the first week, people were assured by chief ministers and medical advisers that the government’s coronavirus response plan was led by science, and science alone. In fact, the term ‘plan’ was was used in speeches more often than ‘NHS’ (See the Terms Frequency chart). At that time, the government pinned its hope on scientific planning, not on the underfinanced and understaffed public health sector.
Within days from its announcement however, the initial scientific approach was claimed deficient. It failed the test of collective logical scrutiny and prompted worried individuals and scientific communities to sound alarm bells. The British Society for Immunology wrote an open letter to the government in which it expressed its concerns on the steps taken to address the outbreak and lobbied for stricter social-distancing measures.
In a stark U-turn, the government subsequently had to revisit previous mitigation planning. Washing hands was still considered an adequate preventative measure at that time, but equally in his statements the PM started speaking of a ‘pandemic outbreak’.
As a result of the drastic shift in the government’s tactics, the language of assurance from March the 3rd changed considerably the following week. Between the 9th and 12th of March, the Covid-19 pandemic was rechristened as the ‘worst public health crisis for a generation’. The PM struck a particularly somber tone and famously warned that many families should be prepared to ‘lose loved ones before the time’. As the herd immunity project was shelved, the term ‘plan’ became less frequent and efforts to mobilise voluntary obedience began.
The end of the second week of March marked the closure of the Containment phase, and a move to the Delay phase. The announcement of the new steps was followed by a busy week for the government. Statements on the virus were delivered every day and their length increased visibly.
On the 16th of March, the same day when Emmanuel Macron was urging the French to obey strict lockdown rules or face punishment, people in the UK were advised to stop non-essential travel and work from home if they can.
Pubs, clubs and social venues remained open until Friday 20th March. A surge of more negative rhetoric became apparent in government statements, as terms such as ‘invisible enemy’ and ‘disruptive crisis’ started being commonly used, further undermining the government’s earlier assurances about its preparedness.
Boris Johnson, having previously avoided the term in his handling of the crisis, now resorted back to heavily using one of his favourite and most commonly used phrases, ‘the people’. Indeed, the only term used more often in his speeches that week was ‘disease’. ‘Advice’ also featured heavily, following on from the government’s hesitation to issue strict orders (See the Terms Frequency chart).
The fourth week of March saw a decline in the PM’s public addresses on coronavirus, partially because both he and other people at the heart of the government’s response (including health secretary Matt Hancock and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty) showed symptoms of the disease and retreated into isolation. On the Friday of that week, the total number of UK deaths reached 759. But our data study shows that despite the underlying reality becoming more grim, the tone of the announcements delivered that week was far more positive than the previous week. Yes, Britain was facing the ‘silent killer’, but the focus had now shifted towards protecting the NHS at all costs, and taking “the right measures at the right time”, rather than focusing on the negatives. Frontline NHS staff and volunteers were often thanked for their ‘amazing work’ and risking their own lives in the fight with the virus. Citizens who followed government advice were also acknowledged for their obedience.
In effect, the government conceded that week that the battle with coronavirus would be won not so much through scientific modeling but through the help of British citizens — those accepting voluntary home arrest and those at the forefront of the NHS.
It’s not if but when
According to Professor Jeremy Farrar, one of the government’s main scientific advisers, the UK is set to be Europe’s worst affected country in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. While other European countries such as Germany acted swiftly to isolate infected people, the UK’s government’s hesitance to implement stringent social distancing rules will likely result in a higher death toll in the short term.
But the UK government’s U-turn in its approach to the crisis is not without significance. It signals that the country’s leadership is to some extent willing to listen to the population’s concerns even at the expense of the suggestions of its advisory teams. The concerns of citizens and the broader scientific community were taken onboard and addressed accordingly.
If viral pandemics are here to stay then using the well-established playbook espoused by public health experts and having political leaders who can lead by example will be crucial. Government transparency on its chosen strategy can also help, judging by the improving situation in Spain and Italy. On the contrary, leading citizens astray with contradictory statements about the severity of the disease might bring more grievous results, and help the virus to wreak havoc.
Either way — evidence for due diligence should be looked for in the announcements of political leaders.
Methodology & Data
Text Mining with R
A guide to text analysis within the tidy data framework, using the tidytext package and other tidy tools
The sentiment analysis was performed with the tidy data framework, using the tidytext package in R.
Relative and raw terms frequency were calculated with Voyant Tools, and plotted with data visualisation tool — Flourish.