Looking back over the first week of December, three stories stand out: regulatory approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, last ditch Brexit trade talks, and, of course, the scotch egg debacle. The first two are both incredibly important and interesting in their own right, however it’s perhaps the latter which has created the largest ripples across the front pages and social media.
Following a second national lockdown, the Government unveiled that under the refreshed tier-based system, the vast majority of England will only be able to drink alcohol in a pub if served alongside a “substantial” meal. Low and behold, the spotlight then shifted to a quintessentially British savoury food: the scotch egg.
The story exploded into life last Monday when Environment Secretary George Eustice said it “probably would count” as a meal under new rules, before his colleague Michael Gove waded into the debate with two opposing statements to LBC Radio and ITV News, just hours apart, adding even more confusion. The commentariat were quick to jump onto what was quickly being seen as another communications gaffe from the Government.
“Substantial” might be, as Matt Hancock later said, a recognised term in the hospitality industry, but it’s vague in the eyes of the general public. It lacks clarity at a time when people need it most, and if the Government wants people to follow the rules then minimal room for ambiguity is crucial.
According to new research, the hospitality sector is expected to lose an estimated £7.8 billion in sales due to the new tier system, sparking reaction from many including Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of trade group UK Hospitality, who said the Government’s entire approach “lacked any sliver of logic”, and called for a “much clearer and supportive approach”. In other words, pubs are on their knees and the last thing they need is uncertainty around what food they can serve without getting hit with a fine.
On the other hand, is the scotch egg debate really worth having? The media has an important role to play in sharing information with the general public and, above all, scrutinising the Government’s decisions – pandemic or not. One could argue that the British media is the best in the world at doing this, and I’m sure Gavin Williamson would agree. But this hunt for another ‘gotcha’ distracted the media for several days without shedding any light on the detail of these new restrictions. We might expect this light-hearted approach from the tabloids – the Daily Star certainly hasn’t let us down – but it’s rare to see the broadsheets spend so much resource on such pedantry.
This outlook has, and continues to, create huge practical and communication challenges for the Government. It’s impossible to write a rule for every single person and every set of circumstances, meaning success is contingent on the public showing common sense and initiative while adhering to the broad spirit of the guidelines. This is arguably an approach that the Government should have adopted from the start. A new study from Kings College London suggests that one in six people feel there is no point following the rules any longer – a figure which grew significantly following the Barnard Castle fiasco. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a worrying percentage but, in the midst of a global public health crisis, that’s more than ten million people who have decided to go rogue.
This adds even more weight to the argument that the Government needs to be clear and transparent when setting new restrictions and communicating them on a national scale. It’s difficult to believe that three senior Cabinet Ministers could have been so inconsistently briefed ahead of the same interviews – when the scotch egg debate was bound to be raised – and Gove actually seemed to enjoy speaking about it, telling a reporter: “I myself would definitely scoff a couple of scotch eggs if I had the chance”.
This therefore poses the question: who benefits from these distractions? Is this really a ‘gaffe’ or did it actually serve the Government’s purpose to be talking endlessly about scotch eggs while the Covid death toll passed over the 60,000 mark and Brexit talks reached breaking point?