More than half of UK public say govt Covid-19 comms lack honesty and credibility

Findings come from poll of 9,000 people by Belong – the Cohesion and Integration Network and the University of Kent.

Alex Aiken: govt comms chief is applying for new role after current position was abolished
Alex Aiken: govt comms chief is applying for new role after current position was abolished

The majority of people in the UK think Government communications on Covid-19 lack honesty and credibility, according to a report released today.

The news will come as a blow to the Government Communication Service, which employs thousands of civil servants and has spent more than a year promoting the Government’s Covid-19 messaging.

Just one in five (20%) of the British public attribute high honesty and credibility to UK Government communication, with more than half (52%) saying that Government communication is lacking in these two areas.

Almost one in four (23%) do not think the Government’s Covid-19 comms are honest and credible.

And less than one in 20 (4%) rate them as extremely honest and credible.

The findings are from new research by Belong – the Cohesion and Integration Network and the University of Kent, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

The report, Public Perceptions of UK and Local Government Communication about Covid-19, draws on the views of more than 9,000 people across the UK who were polled in May and June this year.

Half (50%) think Government communication lacks empathy, and almost half (48%) do not think it meets their community’s needs.

Improvement needed

The report said: “A huge amount of information has been communicated by the UK Government to the public about Covid-19, but the central question is whether that information is being received and understood.”

It added: “The evidence here shows that, despite continual updating through television and other mass media, generally a third of respondents perceive the clarity, honesty, empathy, and value to their community to be low. Moreover, on all of these aspects they find communication from the UK Government to be of lower quality than that from local government.”

There is an “unfortunate paradox in that the information that is most likely to be perceived as clear, honest, empathic, and valuable (ie that from local government) is also least accessible”.

In contrast, the information that is most accessible – that from central government – is “generally perceived to be less trustworthy, less empathic and less focused on community needs”.

Alex Beer, welfare programme head at the Nuffield Foundation, commented: “As Covid-19 restrictions continue to be relaxed, a greater reliance is being placed on personal responsibility. It is therefore important that people have credible and trustworthy sources of information and advice to draw on.”

Different perspectives

The report reveals significant differences between the way people view comms from national, local and devolved governments.

Local government communication is rated higher in almost all categories, being viewed as significantly more honest, credible, and empathetic than comms from central government.

People also perceive locally based communication to be more directly relevant to the needs of their own communities, according to the report.

However, 45% view central government communication as highly accessible and easy to find, compared to 33% for local government communication.

In Scotland and Wales there was a stark difference in perception of communications from the UK Government and their own devolved governments.

Almost two-thirds of respondents in Scotland (64%) and Wales (62%) see UK Government communication as lacking honesty and credibility – compared to just 22% in Scotland and 26% in Wales who think the same of the comms from their devolved governments.

The report states: “Local areas and local government are in a stronger position to influence behaviour because they are likely to be regarded as trusted and credible. But this strength of being trusted communicators can only be capitalised upon if they have the resources to increase their ability to make crucial information more widely accessible and easier to find.”

Dissenting view

Responding to the report’s findings, a Government spokesperson said: “We don't agree with this assessment of our communications efforts. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we have set out clear, consistent and targeted instructions to the public about what people need to do to prevent the spread of the disease and stay safe.”

They added: “Our public information campaigns have reached an estimated 95% of adults an average of 17 times a week, and we have collaborated closely with local government and Devolved Administrations.”

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