School of Social and Political Science

SPS study analyses the politics of UK Government's use of Covid-19 charts and infographics



Chris Whitty at Covid-19 press briefing


Governments’ use of visualisation techniques can help to establish authority by justifying policy interests and priorities, according to a new study from Social Policy’s Professor Sotiria Grek and colleagues.

The paper – Next slide please: the politics of visualization during COVID-19 press briefings – examines what we can learn from the way the UK Government visually communicated and narrated policy. It focuses on the government’s Covid-19 response through its daily press briefings during the first wave of 2020.  

Governments use visualisation and quantitative data all the time to understand problems and communicate solutions, but the daily briefings provided an unprecedented opportunity to examine this over a sustained period. 

The authors say that the government’s use of visualisation helped to communicate and support shifting policy goals, not simply conveying information dispassionately. It also made decisions on what to include and omit based on political convenience.

Sotiria and co-authors William Allen (University of Oxford) and Justyna Bandola-Gill (University of Birmingham) analysed all 79 sets of slides that the government used during its daily press conferences from 30 March to 24 June 2020. They identified two main phases of visual communication  a ‘reactive’ phase focused on communicating knowledge about the pandemic in a rational manner, and a ‘proactive’ phase that created new policy-based narratives of the pandemic.  

The reactive phase, according to the authors, featured graphs that focused on transport use, cases, hospitalisation and deaths. This phase set the terms of what policymakers needed to address to solve the crisis. The proactive phase revealed an apparent shift in policy objectives: from reacting appropriately to emerging data and scientific knowledge about the virus, to proactively communicating an exit strategy. Instead of just describing available data, these slides were intricately combining facts with policy-based narratives of the pandemic, asserting the UK Government’s authority and policy choices.

The unusual circumstances of the pandemic allowed governments to use a range of elements (evidence, public health messaging, rankings and forecasting), with daily updates constructing a single visual narrative that helped to establish and support their authority. The repetition of this visual messaging and the addition of new infographics throughout the pandemic further reinforced this authority during a time of such uncertainty. Additionally, the government could remove any images that were no longer aligning with its narrative. For example, as mortalities rose, the government suddenly – and permanently – removed an image which compared the UK’s mortalities to that of other countries. 

The study concludes that, as visualisation is likely to remain an essential tool for policymakers, researchers should prioritise having a better understanding of its uses and effects.

The full paper is available to read here.

(Header: Professor Chris Whitty at a daily Covid-19 press conference inside No10 Downing Street. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)