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The UK government’s use of algorithms to grade student exam results resulted in students taking to the streets and generated swathes of negative media coverage. Many grades were seen as unfair, even arbitrary. Others argue the algorithms and grades were a reflection of a broken educational system.

The government would do well to understand the root causes of the problem and make substantive changes in order to stop it happening again. It also needs to regain the confidence and trust of students, parents, teachers, and the general public.

Whilst the government appears reluctant to tackle some of the deeper challenges facing education, it has wisely scrapped the use of algorithms for next year’s exams.

And now the UK’s Office for Statistics Regulation has issued its analysis of what went wrong, highlighting the need for government and public bodies to build public confidence when using statistical models.

Unsurprisingly, transparency and openness feature prominently in the OSR’s recommendations. Specifically, exam regulator Ofqual and the government are praised for regular, high quality communication with schools and parents but criticised for poor transparency on the model’s limitations, risks and appeal process.

Ofqual is no outlier. Much talked about as an ethical principle and prerogative, AI and algorithmic transparency remains elusive and, if research by Cap Gemini is accurate, has been getting worse.

The UK exam grade meltdown shows that good communication (aka openness) must go hand in hand with meaningful transparency if confidence and trust in algorithmic systems are to be attained. The one is redundant without the other. And they must be consistent.


  • First published in AIAAIC Alert, the fortnightly newsletter examining AI, algorithmic and automation trust and transparency
  • Watch/listen to the Ada Lovelace Institute’s webinar on the OSR review

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed UK government decision-making in a manner not seen for decades. Here is a chronological overview of the government’s response to the virus, with a focus on central government in England. It is updated on an ongoing basis.

The government’s response from the start of the outbreak until February 2021 is seen through a communications and reputational lens. External factors such as health, financial, economic, social, cultural, political, legal and regulatory actions and events, and media coverage and public opinion polling, are highlighted in italics.

The timeline is updated as new facts are made public.

Pollsters IPSOS-MORI, YouGov and Opinium provide useful data and insights on UK public opinion on the COVID-19 pandemic. For an international perspective see Pew Research.


Source: IPSOS MORI

February 2021


Source: Opinium

January 2021



December 2020



November 2020


UK political party fitness to govern, Ipsos MORI, October 2020


October 2020


Voting intention since 2019 general election, Opinium, Sept 2020

September 2020


Approval for UK govt handling of COVID-19, Opinium, August 2020

August 2020


Perception of COVID-19 management by UK govt, Kings College/Ipsos MORI, July 2020

July 2020


Confidence in UK govt, UCL, August 2020

June 2020


UK govt priorities during COVID-19, Ipsos MORI, May 2020

May 2020


Health vs economy priorities dusing COVID-19, Ipsos MORI, April 2020

April 2020


Perceptions of COVID-19 management in the UK, YouGov, March 2020

March 2020


February 2020


January 2020


December 2019

  • 31: Wuhan Municipal Health Commission informs WHO of cases of ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’

This timeline aims to give a balanced view of the UK government’s response to COVID-19. It does not claim to be comprehensive.

Let me know if there is anything important that is missing, unfair or inaccurate.

You are welcome to use, copy and adapt the contents of this timeline. When doing so, ensure you attributeCharlie Pownall/CPC & Associates‘ and provide a clear, prominent link back to this resource in line with the following licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an orgy of news stories, commentary and analysis in which the terms crisis, disaster and emergency have been used almost interchangeably. What is the correct terminology?

According to Muckrack’s Trends research tool, the terms crisis and emergency dominate media headlines and body copy.

These three terms are closely related and overlap significantly, yet each has its own distinct meaning and implications.

  • A crisis is an issue or event that invites unwanted external scrutiny, seriously impacts an organisation’s ability to do business, and jeopardises its reputation. There are many types of crises (and non-crises); research shows most crises stem from management weaknesses.
  • An emergency is an unplanned event such as fire, flood, evacuation, violent crime or fatality that affects an organisation locally and requires immediate action. The impact of an emergency is generally limited to the initial event itself.
  • A disaster is a severe situation that affects broader society and which has the potential to interrupt business operations on a longer-term basis. Examples include an earthquake, a tornado, a major flood or power outage, or a serious health pandemic.

Despite the coronavirus technically classifying as a disaster, it is no surprise that journalists and commentators prefer the term crisis given it is media shorthand for pretty much anything that goes or can go wrong.

Blurred boundaries

Yet the boundaries between crisis, emergency and disaster are less straightforward than they first appear.

The coronavirus may be a disaster for health organisations and inter-governmental organisations, but it is also resulting in serious crises for companies shut down by government decree or mishandling how they manage their response.

And a really serious crisis resulting in significant environmental, social, economic or geo-political damage – think BP Deepwater Horizon – is often termed a disaster (‘a crisis with a bad ending’), or even a catastrophe.

Communicators beware

Crisis teams and communicators, however, should take real care with their terminology. Planning and responding to serious negative events requires precision with what words mean and imply.

A health pandemic necessitates a different response to a workplace fatality or data privacy breach. Different teams are often involved, and each scenario demands different policies, protocols and messages. Activating the wrong plan can be disastrous.

While COVID-19 is growing exponentially, it is no emergency, no matter what the media says. But it is a crisis for some organisations and a disaster for others.

And for a few, it spells potential catastrophe.

Bob Elphick, former Reuters and BBC foreign correspondent, my initial boss at the European Commission and first professional mentor, liked to say the Commission had ‘broad shoulders’.

By this he meant that it could – indeed was in the regular business of – taking the blame for others’ deeds and misdeeds.

By the end of my time there, much of my job was spent attempting to kick into touch scare stories of Brussels needlessly meddling in UK matters.

Rumours abounded of the EC (now EU) banning bendy bananas and curvy cucumbers, or outlawing cheddar cheese and forcing donkeys on beaches to wear nappies.

The problem: few were true.

The Economist - Euromyth lies, damned lies and directives

Yet euromyths have persisted to this day, largely unchallenged, and have had a significant impact on public opinion in the UK.

Why have these scare stories been allowed to circulate so freely?

Here’s my take in the EUobserver, based on my time as an EU official much of whose time was spent fact-checking and rebutting tall stories in the UK media.

It is a cautionary tale for all organisations, and especially supra-, national- and international ones.

Part 2 of an interview with a Chinese PR student on crisis communications and social media.

Here is Part 1.

3. Does social media impact crisis communications in different ways in Asia versus the UK? Are there any characteristics exclusive to the UK?

In my experience social media can indeed impact crises differently in Asia, and much of this comes down to speed – parts of Asia are very highly networked – and the culture of the web, which can be immensely volatile, especially in a country like China. Compounding matters there’s the fact that customer and stakeholder opinion is evolving quickly across the region, not least concerning expectations about corporate good behaviour and transparency, while government attitudes towards foreign companies, in particular, can be hostile, and control of the internet notoriously uneven. These aspects – and plenty of others – require a close understanding of the context in which you are operating.

Operationally, the main difference is that Asian organisations tend to be more conservative, hierarchical and slow to make decisions, which can make the management of a crisis challenging. And where there is a culture of strong local political control, and a pliant local media, local companies may well have little experience of having to manage serious negative events in public and online – a notable example being Taiwan Formosa and the Vietnamese governments’ inept handling of a toxic spill earlier this year that ravaged hundreds of kilometers of coastline and damaged the livelihood of thousands of local Vietnamese fisherman.

Equally, some multinationals operating in Asia are reluctant to devolve crisis decision-making to their local businesses, resulting in precious time being lost when you need to respond quickly and appropriately at the start. And for the reasons pointed out above, foreign companies must be mindful of throwing the standard western crisis playbook at what may be a very different business, media, political and legal environment.

I’m not convinced there’s anything intrinsically unique about the nature of crisis communications in the UK – at least in a western context – other than perhaps the behaviour of the mainstream media, specifically the tabloid press, which can be very single-minded in their willingness to build up and then attack an organisation, and whose views tend to bleed quickly and deeply into the social web.

See also my Primer on Crisis Communications, which covers similar territory.

 

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