Boris Johnson's UK government struggled with 'very confused' Covid-19 messaging

Sir Craig Oliver, former adviser to ex-PM David Cameron, tells UAE forum many politicians failed to get a clear message out as the pandemic hit

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Nations with a clear approach to communications coped better with the devastating impact of Covid-19, a former UK government adviser said.

Rapid adoption by governments of digital services and mass messaging on social media were rare positive outcomes of the pandemic, according to Sir Craig Oliver who advised the British government led by David Cameron.

“There are some great examples of governments around the world that were communicating about Covid very clearly about what they wanted society to do,” Mr Oliver told the International Government Communication Forum at Expo Centre Sharjah.

“The UK was not one of those countries and it had a very confused message in the beginning of the pandemic.

It had a very confused message in the beginning of the pandemic
Sir Craig Oliver

“It was not clear about how serious it was, how the government was going to react and what was likely to happen.”

Muddled thinking in the early days of the pandemic in March 2020 in the UK led to a delay in cancelling public events that were blamed for rapidly spreading infections.

A football match in Liverpool and horse racing festival in Cheltenham continued with tens of thousands of people attending, despite much of Europe already enforcing travel restrictions.

The Boris Johnson-led government was criticised for a lack of transparency in keeping the public informed, a mistake Mr Oliver said was only rectified with a rapid vaccination campaign months later.

“Covid is a great example of how something really complicated that has not been experienced before demands an immediate response from government,” said Mr Oliver.

“It is an extraordinary situation for them to be in and has shown governments have to get the basics right.

“If they are behind the latest social media platforms, like TikTok, for example, their messaging could be left behind.

“The reality is politicians have to be capable on social media and be able to use the mechanism effectively.”

Sir Craig Oliver speaks at the International Government Communication Forum in Sharjah on 27 September, 2021. Pawan Singh / The National

Seamless transition to remote working

While British politicians delayed key decisions on public health, other nations with established digital systems in place coped better with a transformation towards remote working and learning.

Estonia, the smallest Baltic state, has one of the most advanced e-societies in the world, with most government services conducted online.

It allowed for a seamless transition towards remote working for many businesses and schools as the pandemic took hold.

"By digitising our government early, we were able to continue to perform all our public services during the pandemic,” said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was Estonia president for a decade from 2006.

“We did not have to shut down the government to avoid people meeting each other."

Mr Ilves said many government offices in the US were forced to close, resulting in huge backlog of files, which included 3.5 million passport applications.

“In Estonia, we did not have that problem as the process was already done online without the need to go into a government office.

“Covid has been a fundamental motivator for governments to digitise.”

Mr Ilves dismissed privacy concerns over governments gaining access to personal data during the pandemic.

New technology unveiled

Wristband trackers for airport arrivals, digital check-in systems and mobile health applications have been widely introduced during the Covid-19 crisis, leading to mass data collection by governments.

It has allowed policymakers to shape health and social policies thanks to largely accurate and efficient information that helps manage resources.

But fears over how that information could be used in the future by governments should not be a concern, Mr Ilvers said.

“The degree of government data tracking compared to that by social media companies is tiny,” he said.

“Everything we do online is tracked so we should not be worrying about what governments are doing.

“The way we guarantee privacy in Estonia is through mutual reciprocal transparency. If someone is tracking my data, I can see who that is.”

Despite the successful digitisation of services in Estonia, cyber threats continue as more governments migrate towards online services around the world.

A cyber attack in the Baltic state in 2007 caused mass disruption to online services in Estonian banks, media outlets and government departments.

Botnets, or private computers infected with malicious software, sent waves of spam that swamped servers, causing many to crash.

As more UAE government services move online, cyber threats are something authorities here are proactively guarding against.

“We have cyber security centres across the UAE in each emirate to prevent any threat,” said Mohamed Hamad Al Kuwaiti, the UAE Government’s head of cyber security.

“We need to spread the culture of cyber security in order to make it a lifestyle where parents and families pass it on to their children," he told the Sharjah forum.

“Cyber security is everyone’s responsibility.”

Updated: September 27, 2021, 5:39 PM