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Executive's Covid-19 messaging must hit the right note

VAN Morrison's intervention in the coronavirus debate has proven to be as unwelcome as it was unexpected.

The musician has recorded three songs, including a track called No More Lockdown, in protest at Covid-19 restrictions.

He accuses the government of "taking our freedom" and trying to "enslave" the public. Scientists also feel his ire for "making up crooked facts".

These are neither mainstream nor widely supported views but they have attracted much comment and criticism, including from health minister Robin Swann.

Freedom of expression is an essential hallmark of a liberal democracy, though it is also clear that no-one should be following the public health advice of a troubadour ahead of that offered by the consensus of medical and scientific opinion.

The episode does, however, highlight once again the difficulty the Stormont executive continues to encounter in hitting the right note with its coronavirus message in this phase of the pandemic. This must be urgently and comprehensively addressed.

Asked yesterday by the BBC about Mr Morrison's lyrics, Mr Swann said that the singer's "messaging is dangerous".

That may be the case. But eccentric and ill-informed commentary is often to be found around the edges of almost all public discourse.

When it comes to the vexed subject of Covid-19 restrictions, the executive must be clear and consistent in its messaging. It must repeat and emphasise that message at every opportunity, in a range of print and broadcast media.

Ministers must also explain the rationale behind the imposition of fresh restrictions on their freedom. As much data and information should be shared with the public as possible.

Nor is it clear why every Stormont minister is not involved in disseminating the evolving public health message when its very purpose is to help save lives.

Confusion has undoubtedly accompanied the introduction of the localised measures.

Symptomatic of this was the apparently sudden inclusion of the Dundonald and Castlereagh areas in a restricted zone previously understood to fall within the Belfast City Council boundaries.

Lessons will hopefully have been learned from this episode, and from the manner in which the first set of localised restrictions have been introduced.

If, as seems almost certain, these measures are to be extended to other postcodes it is vital that the public have confidence in what they are being asked to do.

While responsibility ultimately lies with individuals to behave sensibly and safely, the executive must also show leadership.

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