Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Covid-19 Pandemic

5:45 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I want to raise the need for the Government to rethink its Covid-19 advertising strategy. The message is not tough enough and it is not cutting through. The HSE's advertising campaign has become stale, predictable and it is not hitting home with the entire population. Back in March, we knew very little about Covid-19 or the impact it would have on all of our lives. The message then was that people should wash their hands, cough into their elbow and protect themselves and others. After months of upheaval, a great deal of research and development and, unfortunately, more than 2,000 deaths, the message is to wash hands, cough into one's elbow and download the Covid tracker app. It is stale, predictable and ineffective.

We can do better than this. One of our nearest neighbours, Scotland, is doing better. Its campaign emphasises the frightening ability of the virus to linger unseen. It shows an asymptomatic woman who accidentally infects her grandfather with Covid-19. The advertisement depicts the virus as a visible green gunk that transfers from her hands to the cupboard she opens to grab the teabags she uses to make him a cup to tea. It shows her hugging her grandfather goodbye, oblivious to the damage she has done. It closes with the stark warning, "Do not pass coronavirus to those you love". Australia has embraced very hard-hitting advertisements to ensure its message lands. One of them begins with the words of a young man who infected his mother with the virus. He says:

My mum is in ICU with Covid. We visited her a few weeks ago but I didn't know I had Covid. I had no symptoms.

In a short, sharp, 30-second advertisement, people are encouraged to be Covid safe and to save lives.

Here in Ireland, we are reminding people that Covid-19 is still a problem and encouraging them to wear face masks and wash their hands. We can do better than that and we have done better than that. One need only look to the HSE's QUIT campaign to see how effective advertisements can be. Everyone in Ireland remembers the man talking to his daughter and promising to quit smoking. Everyone remembers Gerry Collins. When he sadly passed away, the HSE told his family that the advertisements in which he featured had helped more than 60,000 people attempt to give up smoking. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, has also run hard-hitting campaigns to crack down on speeding and drink-driving. It knows that the content shocks and scares people but, most important, it changes people's behaviour. We do not like watching such advertisements but we all hear their message loud and clear.

Can the same be said of the Covid-9 campaign or, months on, is it white noise to us? Has it become ineffective? The RSA's Crashed Lives advertisements were rated by the public as the most influential factor in saving lives on Irish roads. Can we say the same for the Covid-19 advertisements? It is time to mix up our messaging and up our game. It is more important now than ever, as we prepare to reduce restrictions, that we are hitting people with the right message, which is to remain Covid safe in order to safe lives.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Higgins for raising this really important issue and for her valid questions concerning the role of advertising and the Government's response to the pandemic. She made a number of significant points about the effectiveness of hard-hitting advertisements and whether the ones currently being used have become ineffective at this stage. As we all know, Covid fatigue has set in and that is a problem.

Covid-19 is a new, highly infectious disease for which there is no cure and, as of yet, no vaccine, although there was some positive news in this regard earlier in the week. The main tool we have to protect against the virus is adherence to the public health guidelines. As the Deputy outlined, those guidelines ask us to wash our hands well and often, practise good cough and sneeze hygiene, wear face coverings in shops and on public transport, stay in one room if we are Covid positive, stay at home if we are a close contact of a confirmed case, physically distance by 2 m from others, and avoid crowds and crowded places. As the only actions proven to work against the spread of Covid-19, these safe behaviours are the bedrock of the communications programmes of my Department and the HSE. Throughout the pandemic, my Department has been working with a Covid-19 communications behavioural advisory group, comprising experts in driving behavioural change, to understand key population behaviours and drivers and inform our public communications activities.

We all know that the virus has not changed since March. It has not gone away. It is still circulating in our community. After the initial restrictions imposed in spring were eased, disease incidence began to rise as we all began to move around again.

Over the past number of months, my Department and the HSE have, in close collaboration, developed numerous advertising campaigns to empower safe behaviours around Covid-19. These campaigns, broadcast on digital platforms, radio and television and in print media include: Covid-19 symptoms and what to do; Covid tracker app; Covid-19 - cases to self-isolate and close contacts to restrict their movements; HSE Bubble campaign reinforcing the additive effect of the public health advice; the #HoldFirm campaign which addresses the fatigue that the public is feeling with level 5; and the Healthy Ireland building resilience campaign. The government is also developing a communications campaign to inspire and empower young adults to live safely within the public health guidelines. This campaign is being developed in consultation with stakeholders representing this cohort.

All of this work is supported by regular opinion polling carried out by a research partner, Amárach. This is published weekly on my Department's website and shows the commitment in the advertising strategy to assessing how members of the general public are feeling, not only about the COVID-19 measures but on a range of issues relating to the pandemic. This ensures the communications strategy has a strong baseline of evidence-based tracking to rely on.

Underpinning all of the activity to which I refer is the consistent yellow look and feel of the Department of Health and HSE public health advice. The distinctive yellow posters and public health logos were a strategic choice. This branding has become synonymous with trusted public health advice and has been consistently used across all of the above crucial communications work. However, I take on board the points that the Deputy has made. People are fatigued with Covid and maybe they are also fatigued with the messaging that we are sending out. I agree that, previously, hard-hitting advertisements have been very effective.

5:55 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I really believe that it is time for us to rethink our advertising strategy in respect of Covid-19 - not only what we are saying but also where we are saying it. I would like the Minister of State to work with the HSE to review whether our advertisements are hitting our entire audience because I fear we are not reaching young people. For many of them, their viewing platforms are social-media based. They are not all sitting on the couch with their mams and dads waiting for the nine o'clock news to come on. They are not all tuned in to current affairs programmes that dominate the airwaves. They do not all consume their shows or their tunes via mainstream channels. They stream and they share. They use a variety of platforms to do that - far to many for us to target with our advertising strategy and ones that are not always possible to advertise on - but we know where they consume content and that means we know where to reach them. All we have to do is target our strategy into social media.

I recently tabled a parliamentary question seeking the current HSE Covid-19 advertising levels on social media and the numbers were stark. The HSE has spent €150,000 on online advertising but I do not think it has been spent wisely. The HSE's social media strategy, in my opinion, is overly reliant on Twitter. Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Snapchat together only account for half of the HSE's activity on Twitter. Are we hitting our full audience? That is a legitimate question because that is marketing 101. There is no point in targeting our message at one sector of society and leaving out the people who are most likely to be out and about in the community.

Does the Minister of State know how many posts the HSE has put up on TikTok? It put 1,300 up on Twitter, so how many would the Minister of State think it would have posted on TikTok - arguably the most popular app amongst young people? Ten is the number of posts the HSE posted on TikTok. Are we even trying?

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I again thank Deputy Higgins for raising this important issue. I welcome all the input on what is an evolving communications programme. I thank the Deputy because she has put a huge amount of work into preparing for this debate and pointing out where she feels there are some shortcomings in the advertising campaign.

From the outset of this pandemic, the communication objective, as guided by the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has been to build trust in the public health advice through open and transparent communication. My Department and the HSE are committed to continuing the campaigns that have been so effective in driving down the incidence of Covid in our communities. From the early campaigns focused on at-risk groups, proactive actions individuals can take to encouraging people to visit their GPs and emergency departments, it is clear that this considered messaging is working.

I cannot overstate how much the response to this disease is in our own hands. The main tool we have to help protect against the virus is adherence to the public health guidelines but I take on board the points the Deputy has made in respect of the €150,000 online advertising budget, the ratio of posts, for example, as between Twitter and TikTok, and the amount of young people who use the latter platform and others mentioned. I will certainly feed back the Deputy's information and data to the advertising section of the Department and the HSE. I again thank the Deputy for the time she has spent on this.