Our view on… the Government’s communication on Covid 19 (3)
Since the adoption of the first restrictive measures, we have been regularly reviewing the Government’s communication on Covid 19. As it launches its decontainment plan, we thought it would be interesting to share a new analysis.
Not surprisingly, the Government’s communication policy on the coronavirus crisis is under the sign of “at the same time”, that can be considered as the hallmark of macronism. Indeed, it mixes real successes, insufficiently highlighted by the media, and severe mistakes, sometimes vehemently denounced by public opinion. Today, more than 60% of the French people do not trust the Government on this topic and there are even more numerous to think that it has lied to them. Before we go into details, we must stress on the fact that, the task of the Executive of dealing with such an unforeseen crisis was anything but easy, as reflected the difficulties that have been faced by almost all the western governments. But not all of them, as Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden have shown.
Among the successes, we can report the way the Government had gradually managed the beginning of the containment, through the transition from stage 1 to stages 2 and 3, with the help of scientific advice, rapidly gathered in a Permanent Council placed under the President of the Republic and with wide access to the media. Emmanuel Macron’s solemn speeches contributed greatly to raising public awareness and to the success of the containment. They benefited from record audiences, which have been steadily increasing. Furthermore, the decision to ask the director general of health to maintain a daily information point to provide the latest information on the state of the epidemic reflects the concern of transparency. The Prime Minister’s Sunday press conferences, which are deliberately long, are intended to educate and prepare the public opinion for the successive stages of crisis management. These have been real successes, as his intervention on 28 April in front of the National Assembly to present the national decontainment strategy.
Among the failures, we will not mention the ministerial blunders, probably unavoidable in the face of such a crisis, the most spectacular was the statement by the Ministry of Education excluding the eventuality of closing schools on March 12, just a few hours before the President announced the global confinement. Nor will we talk about some of his risky initiatives, such as going to the theater, emphasizing on the theme “life goes on” or a meeting with hospital workers without respecting the barrier gestures a few days before the lockdown, or even some quick assertions and then denials about who is at risk or wearing a mask. Instead, we will focus on the highly controversial subjects of masks and tests.
Rather than acknowledging the insufficiency of stocks, largely attributable to previous governments, and thus justifying the absolute necessity to reserve them initially for the most affected caregivers and patients, the executive has followed all the phases of poor crisis communication: denying the shortage, then the usefulness of masks and tests, before announcing huge orders or the widest possible implementation. In a single week, orders for masks have risen from 400 million to one billion in ministerial declarations. While decontainment is being prepared, it is announced that wearing of masks will be obligatory in many circumstances, as it is the case in several Asian countries and in Germany, and that tests will be widely developed, as was done from the beginning of the epidemic in Germany. It is clear that public opinion did not immediately “buy” the Government communication on these subjects on the basis of: why would something that works elsewhere be useless in France? The current reversals of strategy do not strengthen the credibility of the executive, which, as we have seen, has already been significantly damaged.
The crisis communication entered in a third phase with the decontainment. The President of the Republic and the Government have decided to speed the exit, particularly at the national education level, by ostensibly departing from the scientific consensus, in the name of the political primacy and to meet the expectations of public opinion. It is a complete switch of strategy. A high-risk change if the epidemic resurges.