Sharing some thoughts today

Introduction – At the moment the very act of putting finger to the keyboard in order to share some thoughts about this virus feels risky. Before the piece is finished the context can change and what seemed a well-considered thought today is left looking quickly outdated by tomorrow. Nevertheless here we go because the last 24 hours has seen significant developments that deserve comment.

The virus – Covid 19 – has not gone away. After the collective efforts we have made in recent weeks we have, together, limited the opportunities for widespread person to person transmission. Infection rates have reduced but are still prevalent. For example I look at data for Merthyr Tydfil and the neighbouring council area of RCT and it is not comfortable reading. Sadly many lives have been lost and my thoughts are with everyone grieving as a result of the virus.

In  Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland the “Stay at Home” message is the correct message. We should only leave our homes for the limited reasons specified.

However I also know that the somewhat different tone of message from the UK Government will be very powerful. That UK voice predominates our ‘made in Wales’ media, and after many stressful weeks I also fear people will hear what they want to hear in the Prime Minister’s words.

The announcement by the UK Government has also now generated some confusion (see the Commons exchanges) and a huge number of very practical challenges that need to be addressed. In reality many people in Wales live cross-border lives (in both directions) and now find the practicalities of their lives covered by two different messages and regulations. On Thursday 7th May the Secretary of State for Wales wrote a piece for the Western Mail in which he stated that the “response has been marked by joint decision-making and collaboration between the UK Government and the devolved administrations”. Within hours I fear that message lay in tatters.

I also recognise that in the coming weeks – now perhaps sooner than they might have wanted – the Governments of Wales and Scotland and the Northern Ireland Executive will face similar challenges to the UK Government. The shift from the “stay at home” message, and the phasing in of more regular activities is approaching. I do not see any of this as “on” or “off” switch but as a phased, and possibly rapidly changing process.

In Wales some limited opportunities have already been identified: the opening of waste recycling centres and garden centres provided that safe methods of work can be identified. These are perhaps important tests in establishing the “new normal”, and also our own behaviours in response.

We also know that even under the “stay at home” advice a range of workplaces have continued to operate. Supermarkets is perhaps the stand out sector that many of us have practical experience of, but also some food production sites, printing operations, utility services, emergency plumbing and electrical work, schools and childcare for emergency workers and frontline services like refuse have continued.

What lessons have been learnt from their working practices?

What have been the levels of self-isolation amongst the work groups that continued to operate?

Which workplaces are reliant on higher numbers of workers and shared public transport networks?

What is the science telling us about impacts by occupation or industrial sector and what steps can be taken for protection of the more vulnerable groups?

Given the evidence of the impacts of this virus on BAME communities how does this impact on the forthcoming risk assessments?

I had assumed there would be some time for preparation for a phased return. Possibly by sector and scale of workplace. But that is not now the case in England. Though given some of the confusion I may be wrong!

Each workplace will now have essential workers who need to undertake/complete the assessments needed to consider the risks and how they are best reduced. Trade unions consulted and agreements sought. Workplace adjustments need to be made – social distancing, screens, dividers, hand sanitisers, floor spaces marked up for circular routes, decisions on kitchen and catering arrangements, shift working patterns, and decisions on the wearing of protective clothing. Governments may provide regulations and guidance on some of these matters, but each employer will also have responsibilities under health and safety legislation and employer liability policies.

The move from this phase of tackling Covid-19 to a new phase will involve huge practical tests. In a phased process we will move from the overriding voice of government to more community, workplace and personal responsibility for what happens next. Perhaps this is what the UK Government were trying to convey with their change of messaging?. But in truth it has been a bit of a communications car crash. That in itself is very telling.

So finally what about the communication of all this complexity?

There are many people far more expert than me about communications but when the time arrives in Wales I believe the recent UK experience shows that we need:

  • Clarity in communications,
  • Message carriers who are well briefed on fine detail,
  • Honesty when something is unknown or unclear.

As things stand Covid-19 did not overwhelm our NHS, though it has, and is, causing significant death and suffering.

Yet I also feel we are very far from finished with this situation. As we read of international experiences we can see the ebb and flow of the virus. I see no reason to think that our experience will be any different.

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