Mike Buckley argues that the UK Government’s apparently confusing ‘Stay Alert’ messaging is actually carefully calibrated to wash its hands of blame.
The Government’s new COVID-19 messaging has been the cause of much confusion. The previous messaging was admirable in its clarity. The task was to stay at home, the promised rewards that the NHS would be protected and lives saved. It was the right strategy, albeit initiated too late, arguably too lax in its implementation and missing the crucial additions of adequate PPE and a testing and tracing programme.
On Sunday, the messaging changed. Again, the promised reward is that lives are saved, but in comparison to “Stay at Home”, “Stay Alert” and “Control the Virus” are deliberately opaque and leave best judgement to the individual. A full 91% of the public knew what “Stay at Home” was asking them to do. A mere 30% understand “Stay Alert”. It will lead to confusion, which will lead to lost lives.
The new messaging has failed to attract support from normally supportive media and drawn criticism from sources not known for being politically partisan. This Morning presenters said the confusion caused was “utterly bonkers”. Lorraine Kelly tweeted that ministers had declined to come on her show to give clarity to viewers. When daytime television presenters who normally steer well clear of anything controversial are up in arms it looks like something is very wrong.
It is easy to assume incompetence. So much of the Government’s COVID-19 response has been chaotic and inadequate, taking us right to the top of the international death league. Why should the same not be true of its messaging?
We know they are bad at governing but good at messaging. They are the ‘Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done’ Government. They use words deliberately and to achieve specific ends. They think that they can wrong-foot its opponents and misdirect anger. They know that it sows confusion when it suits. This is a government that lies when it thinks it can get away with it.
We must assume that the messaging is deliberate and has a clear purpose. The Government knows by now that, by any objective measure, it has failed to control the virus. The UK’s death rate is catastrophic. Unlike many other countries, we failed to contain the Coronavirus in the regions where it first started. We let down the most vulnerable by failing to protect care home residents with even the most basic measures.
The new messaging exists for a purpose, but that purpose is not clear leadership and saving lives. Instead, it is about shifting responsibility, and shifting the blame. The intention is to change the way that the crisis and its actors are framed. “Stay at Home” made everyone’s role clear: the virus was the attacker, the Government the authority and hero of the hour. Our role was to do as we were told. The responsibility for defeating the attacker was the Government’s and, if it wanted to hide behind anyone, it was the scientists.
The messaging has not changed because the numbers have come down. We are not ready to come out of lockdown. Cases are falling but they are far higher than in other European countries which are just now emerging from lockdown. The UK’s deaths per day are still triple those in Spain and Italy. The messaging has changed because the Government is losing its comms battle.
As others have argued, the Government has realised that if it is its comms that makes it ultimately responsible for the death rate. The result is a move to a narrative where we are responsible. The job of the Government is to get out of the way because it is the British people and “good, solid, British common sense” that will win the day. The logical result is that, if we or others get the virus, it is our fault.
Calling out this strategy is less than easy. Argue against it and the response will be that we doubt the ability of the British people to understand how to control the virus and save lives. It is the new version of doubting the ability of Global Britain to make a go of it on our own. They will argue that there was little the Government could do once the virus was out among the general population. It may have locked down too late but, once it had done so, it was up to us. If we catch the virus, we have no one to blame but ourselves, our co-workers, housemates or supermarket staff.
The right response is to accept that we have a role to play, but to criticise the Government for failing in the role that only it can fulfil. Instead of acting early in response to events in Italy and Spain, it wasted time. Instead of informing and equipping the public to defeat the virus, it lied, resisted scrutiny and sought to pass the buck.
This Government has excelled at blaming others. The Thatcher Governments owned their policies and their impacts, at times revelling in harm caused as proof of the change they were creating.
In contrast the Governments of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson have found ways to blame others. Austerity was the fault of Labour for overspending, not political choice. George Osborne blamed the skivers for the poor job prospects of the strivers. Vote Leave blamed migrants for the quality of the NHS, not under-funding. Johnson even got away with promising increased numbers of nurses and police officers last December despite it being his party that had been behind their cuts.
This crisis may yet end the charade. Johnson, week by week, will face forensic questioning from Labour Leader Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions. The media will eventually look for someone to blame when the full extent of our failure to control the virus and prevent needless deaths becomes apparent. Public opinion is already on the turn.
But, the Government’s ability to misdirect blame or desire to stay in power should not be underestimated. It was elected with an agenda to reform the public realm, which it is loathe to abandon. Even now, it refuses to extend the Brexit transition and is adding more Vote Leave staff to the Cabinet Office.
Its messaging is not a mistake, it is carefully calibrated to get it off the hook, to wash its hands of ownership and guilt. Opposition leaders and the media must recognise this and start holding it to account.