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WW2 blackout rested on clear messaging now needed in COVID fight

The public needs clear messaging in order to follow social distancing rules as restrictions following the coronavirus outbreak are relaxed, according to a policy paper by academics at Leeds Beckett University.

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Historians from the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities at LBU say the government would do well to look at how the blackout in Britain was lifted during WW2, as key lessons can be learned.

The success of the blackout rested on the clear communication of restrictions by government, fairness in their application backed by sanctions, and a measure of common sense.

The historians say the same explicit messaging is needed to ensure people equate distance with safety as the nation moves into the next phase of lockdown.

They argue that if actions are not clear as a result of confused messaging, there is a risk that people will ignore the rules or that ambiguity could undermine trust in the approach as a whole.

This comes as more than 14,000 Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) were recorded by police forces in England and Wales up to 11 May for breaching coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Dr Henry Irving, a Senior lecturer, and Dr Shane Ewen, a Reader, in the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities at LBU, assembled a team of historians to explore the analogy and have issued a policy paper titled The real lessons of the Blitz for Covid-19 with the organisation History & Policy.

Dr Irving said: “The key thing here is that people break rules. No one is perfect – not even those who lived through the war. Around one in twenty people were prosecuted for breaking the blackout, but the policy did not break down and people still thought it was a useful thing to do.

“The blackout was successful because people understood that darkness made it harder for enemy planes to find their targets. The impact of COVID-19 is less easy to see than a falling bomb: there is a time lag between infection and illness, and deaths occur mostly out of site.

“Our understanding of the risk is instead framed by what we read and see about the virus. Much of this is dictated by government communications, so the messaging is important. They need to ensure that people do continue to equate distance with safety.”

Dr Irving acknowledged that analogies between the current pandemic and the Blitz are not always helpful because there are major differences between an armed conflict and a global pandemic. 

He added that the reality of aerial bombing forced civilians to alter their daily routines and threw them into the front-line of the conflict.  

Maintaining high morale in the NHS is also fundamental to the success of treatment and the continuation of essential services, according to the policy paper.

“To bolster this morale, the government would be well-advised to work with unions and professional bodies like the British Medical Association to draw up NHS and Care Charters making the case for better PPE, increased pay or a COVID-19 bonus to express the nation’s gratitude, and longer-term guarantees around funding and organisation”, it reads.

They note that volunteers were mobilised in large numbers during WWII but were often poorly co-ordinated and equipped. The lesson is that “current schemes need to foster local networks and communication between volunteers, while existing pools of labour should be redeployed to essential tasks”.

Also, local authorities carried many of the burdens of ARP and post-raid services, during the war, but were not given adequate funding to fulfil them consistently.  Today’s government must avoid this mistake, states the paper.

Britain began to introduce air raid precautions more than a year before WWII began, and civil defence measures were placed in the highly-effective hands of top civil servant Sir John Anderson, who launched a drive in a bid to secure some 1.8 million ARP workers and was responsible for the distribution of some 2.5 million ‘Anderson shelters’. 

“But, while the UK entered the Covid-19 emergency less well prepared than it did the Second World War, it is not too late to implement the lessons,” argue the authors.

They add that “the need is for a coherent, cross-service approach in the style of Anderson, not Churchill.  This should prioritise evolving medical understanding based on the experience of health professionals and epidemiologists and avoid political point-scoring”.

Photo courtesy of Ruskin Spear, The Blackout (1942) © IWM Art. IWM ART LD 2581


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