The links between the media and policy agenda setting are often overlooked. Whilst policy makers did not look explicitly to the media for lessons in the first six months of the covid-19 pandemic the approach to policy and the ensuing actions appeared insular. The media perspective was more outward, looking at both the past and other nations whilst the UK government were looking inward, giving their focus to scientific modelling rather than looking for learning elsewhere.
This apparent lack of outward perspective resulted in the UK faring poorly, with the death rate being third in the world with 1749 deaths per million (as of the 15.2.21). This, despite numerous non-pharmaceutical interventions being introduced (i.e social distancing, isolation, education closures).
We argue that there was no supply shortage of lessons provided by the media, but these were seemingly overlooked in favour of internal solutions offered by modelling rather than looking elsewhere. We found that the media provided a range of lessons, such as openness, transparency and free speech, speed and strength of lockdown, test, track and trace, preparedness and infrastructure and the need for hospital beds.
Whilst we acknowledge there is a complexity to transferring policy from one place to another, the UK government consistently underreacted and downplayed the virus and acted too late, treating the virus as an influenza, rather than SARS/MERS, despite lessons being highlighted in the media. As the situation unfolded in Italy, it became evident that the situation would unfold in a similar fashion in the UK.
The research used the LexisNexis Database to carry out Interpretative Content Analysis of 54 newspaper articles. Lessons from abroad and the past were searched for, as were negative and positive lessons. The analysis was underpinned by the framework set out by Dolowitz and Marsh, which considers who transfers policy, why a policy is engaged with, the degrees of transfer, constraints to transfer and whether the policy is deemed a success or failure. The study did not explore whether the media has a direct impact upon policy but rather the lessons that were being presented as a result of the pandemic.
Lessons from previous pandemics
In the earliest months of the pandemic we found that the focus was situated with previous pandemics, such as SARS and MERS and the Chinese response to this. There was also a focus upon Ebola and Zika, with emphasis upon the requirement for international shared knowledge. In March lessons linked to this were highlighted in terms of how different countries will report ‘honestly, openly and successfully’. Links were made to wildlife trafficking. Both of these theme having links to China. Comparisons to the 1918 flu epidemic were also made with articles highlighting the need for mask wearing, avoidance of public transport, quarantine and the emphasis on separating the sick from the well. By the end of April this was built upon with the media highlighting the need for a ban on public gatherings (learning from 1918 flu pandemic) and compulsory face masks and social distancing. There were also warnings about a second wave and the ensuing crisis fatigue. By May, there were lessons highlighted in relation to the 1918 flu pandemic that lessons would be learned to avoid mass deaths and the ‘survival of the fittest’.
Lessons from Italy were also highlighted as far back as March with the media highlighting the need for quarantine, containment and strong public health information.
The emergence of the virus and China’s response
Early media stories (January-February) pointed to China with suspicion and highlighted the lack of openness and ‘cover ups’. However, by March the Chinese model was presented as the one that should be followe: as Singapore and South Korea had done so with relative success. These were coupled with warnings that countries that did not have targeted quarantine, treatment, communication and cooperation were faring badly in comparison. The EU and the USA were criticised for acting too slowly and tensions increased with Trump referring to covid-19 as the ‘Chinese Virus’. In April, the media coverage was largely negative with focus on China as being slow to disclose the scale of the virus. This was then reiterated in June, with evidence that China was slow to share key information.
Lessons from Italy – Two weeks ahead
Due to Italy being the first developed country in Europe that was badly affected by widespread covid-19 there were many lessons on offer. As far back as March discussion was evident on tracking, quarantine, hand washing and the economic consequences of limiting movement. In March, Italy was being compared to a warzone with the media highlighting the serious mistakes that were made with Italy being overwhelmed due to the virus circulating before authority awareness. Lessons emerged around public transport and the need for rapid lockdowns, mass gatherings, with hospitals being hotbeds for infection spread. All clear messages for the UK government, so that the UK would not repeat Italy’s mistakes. The village of Vo was highlighted as a potential for positive policy learning as the virus was eradicated there due to isolation, test, track and trace, and social distancing.
The road not travelled – Germany
The German approach was highlighted as the model that could give the UK hope in tackling the virus. Germany approached covid-19 differently from both China and Italy. Germany did not feature in the media analysis until March, when it closed borders with France, Austria and Switzerland. By April, Germany was hailed as a success story with questions being raised as to why Germany could put in a robust testing programme and the UK could not. In April, SAGE praised the approach taken by Germany in terms of testing, hospitalisations and low death rate – all reflected in the national figures.
The lessons that could have been learned early in the pandemic are reflected in the real time newspaper stories that were analysed over six months.
Insufficient attention was paid to test, track and trace, quarantine, PPE access, frontline testing and other simple NPIs. The borders were not closed in time and a focus on the economy appeared to take precedent. Due to the focus on the pressures of the NHS vast numerous of people were discharged into care homes – thus spreading the virus further to the most vulnerable. The evidence we present suggests that the UK did not learn from the lessons presented in the media from overseas, or the past.
About the authors
Sophie King-Hill is a Senior Fellow at the University of Birmingham.
Ian Greener is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde.
Martin Powell is Professor of Health and Social Policy at the University of Birmingham.