Just when you thought that the British Government’s messaging about the virus epidemic couldn’t get any worse than the will-we won’t-we come out of lockdown peekaboo game that “sources” within Number 10 played with the press and public last week, on Sunday they managed it. The new message from the British Government to replace the unambiguous and easy to understand “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” is now “Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives.” What does that even mean?
It appears that the British Government is now taking literally Boris Johnson’s rhetorical flourish when he used a metaphor to liken the virus to a mugger. The coronavirus is exactly like a mugger, lurking around a street corner wearing a balaclava. The official British Government advice is that you can defeat it by kicking it in the groin and wrestling it to the ground. Myself and my significant other are taking it in turns now to sit by the window with binoculars in case the virus tries to creep up on us in the dark of night. It appears that the reason that the British Government has had such a confused, chaotic, and incompetent response to the coronavirus crisis is because all this time it thought it was dealing with a sleaze ball who takes advantage of the weak and vulnerable. Which is a reasonable description of Boris Johnson and the Conservative party, so it was an easy mistake to make.
It’s taken them weeks to come up with this slogan. It’s a pity that the British Government hadn’t been more alert from the beginning, and then perhaps the UK wouldn’t have the greatest death toll in Europe. If Boris Johnson and the British Government had possessed even a tenth of the alertness which they are now enjoining the public to employ, then we wouldn’t be in this current mess with the UK at the top of the European league table for deaths. But the only thing that this government was alert to in the early days of this epidemic when it was squandering the head start that the UK had was making sure that Brexit would still happen on schedule and putting the interests of business ahead of saving human lives.
When Boris was pondering his new slogan why was there no one in the room with enough common sense to say out loud that this was a really bad idea. There was no one who was brave enough to point out the obvious, that this is a viral epidemic and not a cycling proficiency test. And then you look at the Conservative cabinet composed as it is of chancers, charlatans, and spineless wonders and all becomes clear. Stay alert has no meaning at all when you’re dealing with a virus that spreads asymptomatically. This government insists that it’s following the science, but it’s hard to understand which part of following the science led to stay alert and control the virus.
How does a member of the public implement this new slogan in their daily life? Hey look out, there’s a microscopic droplet of moisture that you can’t see coming your way! Duck! It’s a virus forgodssake, not a supiciously abandoned suitcase on a busy train station platform. You cannot be alert to something that you cannot perceive.
What’s crucial in terms of public health messaging is that the public are given clear information and simple and unambiguous instructions about what to do to protect themselves and those around them. This new message fails dismally. Stay at home is a simple and unambiguous message which tells the public exactly what is expected of them. The new message doesn’t give any clear instructions about what people are to do on a practical level, and worse it implies that the instruction is no longer “stay at home”. But then this new message suits the British Government because then if you are unfortunate enough to become infected by the virus they can tell you that it’s your own fault for not being alert enough.
Because the infamous R number has been reduced by the stay at home advice, the NHS is not being overwhelmed. The change in messaging is because the Conservatives think that tackling this virus doesn’t mean keeping people safe. No. What it means to them is that it’s fine if you become deathly ill and die as long as there will be a bed in intensive care for you.
Dropping the stay home slogan is a massive self-inflicted error. It replaces a clear message urging people to do something which is proven to be effective in reducing infection rates with the kind of meaningless waffle beloved of a middle manager. It was clearly developedd by the same people who were responsible for Priti Patel’s sensitivity training. Stay alert is a disaster waiting to happen. Now many people will assume that it’s perfectly fine to go out and about. Like those covidiots on Friday who were having street parties and congas to celebrate British nationalism. Sorry, VE Day. The UK is risking losing control of the spread of the virus, a second peak in infections and deaths. The responsibility for that rests entirely with the British Government.
By Sunday afternoon, Downing Street had been forced to issue a clarification explaining what the new slogan meant. But the point about a good slogan is that it ought to be self-explanatory. If you have to explain what your slogan means, it means that your slogan is a failure.
Entirely predictably, the British Government didn’t bother to consult with or even inform the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish governments before changing this vital piece of public messaging. Just like the proposed loosening of the lockdown, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast found out about it because someone in Number 10 had anonyomously briefed a few favoured journalists who published it in the right wing press. Nicola Sturgeon has quite rightly insisted that public health advice in Scotland will not change. Scotland is sticking with the stay at home slogan. However the problem that we have in Scotland is that the Scottish media is for the most part merely some branch offices of the papers’ English editions. Scotland has no national broadcaster of its own. Sky News barely acknowledges the existence of the devolved nations. People in Scotland will receive Boris Johnson’s confused messaging and will think that the lockdown has been eased. The British nationalist press in Scotland is far more interested in attacking the Scottish Government for diverging from the Conservative line than it is in what’s good for public health.
Just as it was predictable that this Tory government would not consult or inform the devolved administrations, it was also predictable that it would come out of lockdown in the same confused, mistimed, and mismanaged way that the UK entered it. And it’s equally predictable that the Scottish Conservatives, who are now cheerleaders for Johnson and are hoping we all forget their Operation Arse in 2016 to keep him out of the Tory leadership, are avoiding any contact with their pals in the press.
People should be alert to the fact we have an incompetent Tory government which was slow to act. They should be alert to the fact that it wanted to implement an insane herd immunity which would cost thousands of lives. The Government hasn’t been alert, it has been sleep walking into a disaster.
I’ve got a better slogan. Stay alert for Tory trolls in government. Save lives and protect the NHS by voting for independence.
And finally, because we could all do with some cheering up during these difficult times…
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