This week: Ben Page, chief executive of pollsters Ipsos Mori
Why he matters: Arguably the most informed reader of the British public mood — especially when it comes to health and healthcare — Mr Page has been a regular adviser to prime ministers and health secretaries over the past two decades. His first two appearances in the Bedpan can be found here.
The coronavirus crisis has seen public confidence in the government increase significantly and it is now as high as it was during the early years of the Blair government.
“When the solids hit the fan,” says Mr Page, “people look for leadership and generally you find that support for government goes up. You can see that in Italy where support for Conti, the prime minister, has risen during the crisis.”
Maintaining that confidence means getting the messaging on the crisis right, and that is easier said than done.
“Once people realise there is a clear and present danger, then they react very, very quickly,” says Mr Page of the public’s reaction to health crises.
“That’s why you see people pouring into supermarkets. Although most people say they disapprove of stockpiling, when you go out and see that the whole shop has been stripped bare and then, the next time you go, there’s a queue outside, you start thinking, ‘I better join that queue’.”
However, the speed of public reaction means that government must be very careful about its messaging.
“When the fuel tanker drivers went on strike in the early years of the Cameron government, Francis Maude went on air and said, ‘I’d get yourself down to the petrol station sharpish’. The result was massive queues and one woman burning herself to death because she decided to decant petrol in her kitchen while deep frying chips.”
“Nuance,” says Mr Page, is best avoided in any messages, an approach this government (and in particular its chief adviser) are well placed to execute.
“We’ve seen two of the most effective political slogans ever [in the last four years]. You can name them yourself, all three words of course, and repeated ad infinitum and ad nauseum.”
Little surprise then that the PM, Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance have been addressing the nation from podiums emblazoned — at various times — with the slogans “stay at home”, “protect our NHS” and “wash your hands”, among others.
“Messages have to be simple and memorable. In times like this, people want absolute clarity and, even if it’s unpalatable, they want to be told what they have to do. So if the advice is ‘stay indoors’, then be absolutely clear — don’t say ‘stay indoors most of the time, but you can still pop out to the pub occasionally’ ’cause that just means people think that means it’s fine to go to the pub.”
The discipline, or lack of it, with which the British public have been practising social distancing or self-isolation has caused significant concern.
Mr Page says the evidence suggests this will only happen once the crises becomes “real” to people. Becoming “real”, he says, means “people you know dying or getting seriously ill”.
He expands: “If you see video footage from Italy, you will see people standing two meters apart in a queue. We haven’t got to that level of sort of fear yet.”
Some people are expendable now
The measures being taken by government to combat the pandemic are likely to have an impact on the economy that may still be resonating long into the 2030s. Many of the measures are being taken to protect the vulnerable — who are largely over 70.
It may well prove the economic impact could cost many more lives than the pandemic itself. If so, says Mr Page, it is an approach the public — for the moment at least — are firmly behind.
“We did some work a few years ago where we looked at what would happen if a pandemic flu arrived and there was limited vaccine.
“People didn’t want to be confronted with the decisions that doctors are going to have to take in the next few weeks [over who should receive intensive care treatment] and they didn’t really want to be confronted with the choice that politicians will have to make now [between saving lives and protecting the economy].
“However, after a few hours of discussion, they were saying, ‘all right, let’s face it — some people are expendable now’. They don’t like saying that, but they will get to it.”
But that does not necessarily mean the elderly will eventually be the ones to pay the price once the economic and social price of the pandemic becomes clear.
Mr Page says the public are clear it is key workers in health, education etc who should be given priority, when it came to receiving a vaccine, for example.
They would also want any policy to be applied in a consistent away across the country, he adds, so no favouring London over Birmingham, for example.
But pensioners still come pretty high on the list of who should receive priority treatment after public service workers.
Mr Page sat on the Resolution Foundation’s ‘intergenerational commission’, while Ipsos has done work for the Joseph Rowntree charity on tension between the generations.
In both cases, despite the fact that “disposable income among pensioners has been rising faster than among younger working people now for a long time”, there was very little enmity from the young toward the old.
“When you ask younger people, who should be prioritised in terms of government spending, they say ‘people with kids’, but they also say ‘pensioners’.
“The idea that anybody over 75 who turns up at a hospital is just given painkillers and sent home is not the view of the public.”
This, says Mr Page, is because the public tend to think about such issues in terms of what they would want to happen to their own grandmother.
So, who could find themselves holding the soiled end of the stick as the measures to combat the pandemic bite?
Mr Page concludes bleakly: “One of the reasons why the working poor have been stuffed in the last decade is because actually that’s who the public favoured being stuffed.”
The Bedpan is HSJ’s interview series with influential figures (mostly) from outside the mainstream health and care world. If there is any political or influential figure you would like HSJ to interview, please email email@example.com.
The past five Bedpans
You can read all 53 Bedpans here.