Next week will mark four months since Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the United Kingdom into lockdown. British Science Association Chief Executive, Katherine Mathieson, reflects on the past four months, the challenges lying ahead, and the battle for the science sector to regain public trust.  


Stay At Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.  

That was one of the first messages we as a nation received after we went into lockdown on 23 March.   

It was clear, it was effective, it was concise. And it had to be. One of the reasons the messaging could be so clear within the first few weeks of lockdown was because the pandemic became the priority. Don’t worry about exams, don’t worry about other hospital treatments, just worry about protecting yourself and your loved ones from this pandemic. There was a simplicity and clarity that stemmed from the urgency of the situation.  

However, we are now moving into a new, less urgent phase of this pandemic, where other factors previously postponed or put on the back burner, are now coming back into consideration, such as climate change, postponed treatments and surgeries, and preparing for the long term economic impact. The messaging, I fear, could become particularly unclear and will be a real challenge for communications and public engagement experts in this next phase.  

What we have seen through our research, and the conversations we have had with our younger audiences and community groups, is that there is a real concern about how uninvolved they feel. The poll we ran back in April found that young people don’t feel included, and aren’t engaged, in the conversation. Minority groups in Blackburn we spoke to also felt that they needed to be more included in the Government's COVID-19 conversations. According to the Edelman Report, trust in government was at an all-time high at the beginning of lockdown but has been falling since, probably at least partly due to people’s confusion about the implications of recent comments by the Prime Minister.  

One of the most important factors is the way information is delivered. When the country has been given clear messages on the importance of hand washing, the simplicity has largely led to successful outcomes. However, during times where there are fewer clear objectives, and the conversation centres around research to help the public make self-informed decisions, things start to become a lot more complex.   

Consider the sheer volume of research about COVID-19, which will mean in the months to come we will be bracing for an avalanche of analyses. This can result in fertile ground for confusion and misinformation to spread and impact on all of us and especially already disadvantaged communities.  

We also need to consider any potential research that isn’t being done. There is a feeling among some communities that researchers aren’t interested in the questions they have. In the United States, some have voiced concerns about the lack of research on links between COVID-19 and Vitamin D levels especially among Black and minority ethnic communities. This is exacerbated by real and perceived differences between scientists and the public. We need to ensure that COVID-19 research is seen to respond to people’s questions and concerns about the disease. This is particularly relevant to minority ethnic communities who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and by its social and economic effects.  

While this next stage will present issues, there is also real hope for change. Despite their efforts, the Government’s specialists and speakers who have presented on pandemic-related policies clearly don’t reflect the diversity of our society. As the urgency around COVID-19 eases, I hope this is an opportunity to think about how we can attack these underlying issues around inequity in representation, too. 

There is lot of talk about the ‘new normal’ in terms of how we will behave differently to minimise the risk of spreading the virus, such as wearing face masks on public transport. I’ve seen much less discussion about communications changes or engagement changes that are needed, and ahead of the new wave of COVID-19 research, these are just as important.