Some of the government’s best comms people are being drafted into a Cabinet Office "war room" in an attempt to win the information war over coronavirus, while the World Health Organization is warning of a fake news "infodemic".
The Department of Health & Social Care has announced that the new team, comprising a "cross-Whitehall team of communications experts" and scientists from across government and the NHS, has been mobilised in advance of a "public information blitz" in the coming weeks.
Its first task is the "Protect yourself & others" campaign launched today, featuring posters and social media ads to reinforce the importance of handwashing for at least 20 seconds, using soap and water or hand sanitiser, to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The ads, which will be rolled out across print, radio, online and out-of-home, will stress the need for people to wash their hands when they return from home or work, after they blow their nose, cough or sneeze, and before they eat or handle food.
The campaign will also highlight the importance of coughing or sneezing into tissues before binning them. The creative and media has been handled by MullenLowe Group UK.
Call to action
Health secretary Matt Hancock commented: "We all have a role to play in stopping this disease and that's what this expanded campaign is all about – making sure the public knows exactly what they should be doing to keep themselves and others safe.
"Washing hands regularly is the single most important thing that an individual can do."
Clear and present danger
The seriousness of the threat facing the UK was reinforced yesterday when prime minister Boris Johnson, flanked by chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance, outlined the government’s "battle plan" to fight the spread of Covid-19.
Globally, more than 90,000 cases have been confirmed, with more than 3,000 deaths.
The press conference, held at Downing Street, relayed the planned approach agreed by the government’s emergency Cobra committee earlier this week.
The number of cases in the UK has risen to more than 50 and Johnson warned that it is "highly likely" that Covid-19 will spread further. "Keeping the country safe is the government's overriding priority," he added.
Up to one in five workers could be off sick if the virus takes hold, according to the government’s action plan. The police could be restricted to responding to serious crime only, non-urgent hospital operations could be cancelled, schools closed, and retired doctors and nurses asked to come back to work.
If the outbreak worsens, "there will be more communication with parliament, the media and the public", the plan states.
One of the ways in which the public can help is by "reducing the impact and spread of misinformation by relying on information from trusted sources, such as that on www.nhs.uk, www.nhsinform.scot, www.publichealth.hscni.net, https://gov.wales/coronavirus-covid-19 and www.gov.uk".
The plan also says: "We will increase publicity about the need for good hygiene measures (handwashing, and catch it, bin it, kill it) and further promote the need for people with symptoms to stay at home for the full duration of their illness."
Fighting fake news
During yesterday’s press conference, Johnson commented that social media has a "very important role" in stopping the spread of misinformation, with social networks having a responsibility to prevent conspiracy theories from spreading online.
"We've all got to be very responsible and the media has a very important role in this, particularly the social media and electronic media of all types," he said.
"I'm sure that they will want to convey the right messages and convey the right balance of risk."
This comes amid warnings by the World Health Organization that "an 'infodemic' of misinformation and rumours is spreading more quickly than the current outbreak of the new coronavirus".
The health body added: "This contributes to negative effects including stigmatisation and discrimination of people from areas affected by the outbreak."
In response to concerns about misinformation linked to Covid-19, Facebook and Twitter have introduced features that link to the official NHS and WHO websites for accurate advice and information on the outbreak at the top of search results. Google has implemented a similar scheme for its search results.