A very important thread by Andy Burnham offering a useful perspective as a former Health Secretary on the challenge for government to develop transparent comprehensive and careful communication during a pandemic crisis... Spoiler: Publishing articles behind paywalls is not great communication.


First published in March 2020.

A decade ago, in June 2009, I was appointed Health Secretary by Gordon Brown. Days later the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic.

Swine flu was never as serious as the current situation. But, from where I was standing, it felt pretty scary.

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World now at the start of 2009 influenza pandemic. / WHO

One of the reasons it felt like this was because two of the risk groups for H1N1 Swine Flu were children with disabilities and pregnant women. So, concern was very high amongst certain groups. As things developed over that summer, communications quickly became my biggest problem.

Two incidents stand out.

First was an appearance on GMTV. Andrew Castle was the interviewer and his daughter had experienced an adverse reaction to Tamiflu. I could only point out that it was still the Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) advice to take it preventatively. But it was a car crash if I am honest.

The second was when I was preparing to make a Commons Statement. The experts had given me scary figures for deaths under the worse case scenario. We debated whether I should give them to the House. How would it look if I withheld them but they then found way into the media?

We concluded it would make people panic even more if they felt the Government wasn’t telling them the whole story. But I can still remember the gasp in the Commons chamber when I read out the numbers. And the newspaper headlines the following day did not make for good reading...

That was when we changed tack. I remember a long call with Sir Liam Donaldson, the CMO, when we diagnosed the problem. It was the mixing of political communications and briefings (and all the issues that go with that) with official government statements. It was time to dial down the former and up the latter.

So we agreed that Liam Donaldson would front all media activity and that I would take a backseat. It was the right decision. From then on, everything became a bit calmer. And my time as Health Secretary was spent less on fighting media storms and more on plans for the vaccine.

I was reminded of all of this last night when I saw the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, writing for a favoured newspaper. I tried to open it but found a paywall. It was lifted not long after – but still. And then, this morning, press briefings appear about draconian plans under development.

I think we have hit the same moment as I hit in the summer of 2009. Bear in mind, there was little social media then and that was hard enough. So, now, we need to hear more from the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Officer (CSO), and less from the politicians. A daily press conference should start tomorrow at the latest.


Tweets posted on 15 March 2020 by @AndyBurnhamGM.


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[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 15 March 2020 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Number 10/Andrew Parsons. - The Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the Cabinet Room in Downing Street. | 14 Mar 2020. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)