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Business and public will struggle with parallel Covid-19 and Brexit messages

3 June 2020

In a report published today, Wednesday 3 June 2020, the Commons Public Accounts Committee says it is concerned that the Cabinet Office will not have the capability to successfully deliver campaign messages on preparations for the end of the Brexit transition period at the same time as delivering the major public health campaign on Covid-19, with it “likely that the Covid-19 campaign will crowd out the Brexit transition campaign.”

The Committee is also concerned businesses - badly hit by Covid-19 restrictions - and the public will not have the capacity to act on both sets of crucial messages.

The Government has faced criticism from the public and media for the lack of clarity in its attempts to communicate the easing of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, including the intended return of some groups of pupils to school this week. At a time of a national public health crisis clear communication is vitally important.

Public not fully prepared to exit the EU

The “Get Ready for Brexit” campaign was devised and delivered in extreme haste in summer 2019, as it became apparent that the UK might leave the EU on 31 October without a “deal”, an economic and political agreement, in place. The campaign, with a budget of £100 million, was launched on 1 September 2019 with the aim to ensure that everyone was prepared for a potential “no-deal” outcome.

But despite spending £46 million of taxpayers' money before aborting the campaign on 28 October, when an extension to the UK's membership of the EU to 31 January 2020 was agreed, the Cabinet Office was unable to demonstrate that the campaign led to people being better prepared for the UK leaving the EU.

Late planning and inattention to business needs

Planning started too late with insufficient attention paid at the outset to understanding what businesses needed, or how to monitor and evaluate the campaign's success. Too much was spent on the “air” mass advertising elements of the campaign designed to raise awareness and not enough on the “ground” targeted activity which would get people to take action, to change their behaviour.

The Committee calls on Government to set out, within the month in response to this report, a clear, cost-justified plan for an “effective and timely communication campaign for the end of the Brexit transition period” on 31 December this year, including the lessons it has learned from the failures of last year's campaign.

Chair's comments

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

 “The Government is taking the UK through not one but two incredible, unprecedented political and economic upheavals simultaneously, but it is business, the public and the public purse that will suffer if it gets it wrong. 

“The Government has shown it could not fully successfully deliver one such campaign, before the pandemic disaster hit - in that case with a lot of money spent on the overarching message but less success on the detail which changes behaviour. With the nation's fortunes, livelihoods and even lives at stake, the Government must quickly give us confidence that it has learned the lessons and understands the scale of the task of running two campaigns like this, each much more complex and longer term than either the coronavirus “stay at home” or the original Brexit date messages.”

Further information

Image: Creative Commons