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Wed 27 May 2020
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Rebecca Welshman detects a disturbing subtext which echoes Boris Johnson’s Churchillian rhetoric over the Coronavirus pandemic while shifting blame away from his administration.

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After seven weeks of lockdown, the country is looking for leadership and answers. With the new “Stay Alert” and “Control the Virus” advice – signed off without the approval of either the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty or the Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance – the Government is attempting to shift responsibility for the virus onto the public.

While “Stay Alert” might at first seem vague, it is dangerously and subversively precise.

The new slogans advocated by Boris Johnson and designed by the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team use the mass psychology theory known as Nudge Theory, which aims to modify behaviour on a large-scale. It has been pointed out that the change in the colour scheme of the COVID-19 messaging from red to green is a psychological prompt from ‘stop’ to ‘go’, with the word “Alert” designed to energise us.

But there is more to it.


The Military Resonances

The meaning of “alert” as we know it today has its origins in 1940s Britain. The Dictionary of Neologisms from 1941, in a commentary titled ‘Among the New Words’, describes the new meaning:

“ALERT. An air-raid alarm. Defined in a glossary in the Outpost, reprinted in Topeka Journal, Dec. 15, 1940. ‘Sirens sounded London’s first daylight alert … today’.”

“Stay alert” is also used in signage in dangerous conditions. An explorer in late twentieth-century Canada recalled: “We realized how close to nature the residents are when we saw large posters suggesting STAY ALERT, STAY ALIVE, with a drawing of a polar bear”. A suitable sign, perhaps, for a large, white, hungry predator with a visual mass almost impossible to miss. The phrase is hardly appropriate for a threat we cannot visualize except through the magnified images of the prickly little Coronavirus microbes themselves that are shown on daily television broadcasts. 

“Stay Alert” has long been associated with the outdoors, and more specifically, firsthand military accounts of the Second World War where the phrase and its variants (“remain alert” etc) frequently appear as part of military commands.

In Memoirs of a Flying Tiger Captain Ho Weng Toh, a WWII air force veteran, recalled navigating the difficult terrain of the Himalayas where spaces were too narrow for an aircraft’s turning radius, a journey that would take up to six hours: “it was a feat of mental endurance for the pilot to stay alert and cautious for such a long period of time”. In his autobiography, the American war veteran James R. Clark writes, “we kept reminding the person who was steering the boat to keep a good distance from the shoreline. We also had to stay alert and on the lookout for the Vietnamese large boats they called sampans”.

Another memoir based on a war diary by William Schumann offers a history of the U.S.S. battleship Idaho. Schumann, who served on the ship, was the observer in a Vought OS2U Kingfisher seaplane used for aerial spotting and observation. He recalls: “Sometime around 23.00 hours, general quarters is called. A lookout saw three flashes on the horizon in front of us. What causes the flashes was not determined, but all hands were advised to remain alert.” Another autobiographical account recalls being part of the “Stay Alert, Stay Alive” battalion at Fort Lewis.


Shifting Responsibilities

As the UK lockdown is prematurely eased we have been instructed to “Stay Alert” because we are being placed in a dangerous position, where many thousands of lives are once again at risk.

We are being given the green light to go outdoors in unpredictable and potentially harmful conditions. Yet COVID-19 is an invisible threat, which renders the original meaning of “alert” in its highly visual and military context all the more redundant.

This deliberate mismatch between the traditional meaning and its application to the current crisis is designed to sow confusion and instill false confidence; to encourage people to believe that through following these commands they can successfully avoid and control the virus. The wording and colour change of the new signage ultimately aims to shift responsibility for the consequences of these changes from the Government onto the public.

In this way, Johnson and his cabinet are preparing the way to evade scrutiny and blame, with the aim being to get people back to work, whatever the cost. However, the language they use cannot and should not be isolated from its original contexts, and at this uncertain time, it becomes all the more important to keep in mind the origins of the phrasing being used to control us. 

It must be a source of disappointment to Boris Johnson that his imagined Churchill moments have been defined by an enemy that no one can see. COVID-19 was not the war that he wanted to lead, and it shows. In this next step in the war against the virus — an attempt to ease the lockdown in order to help the economy — Johnson is putting his troops on the front line against an enemy that can easily overwhelm them.

As Professor Alice Roberts recently tweeted “good luck, herd”.


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