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Sun 20 September 2020
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Alex Andreou dissects how the Vote Leave Government’s latest hollow message around the Coronavirus is devoid of any real meaning and betrays the contempt it holds the British public in

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“Hands. Face. Space.”

The newest three-word slogan from a Government which seems to formulate policy using only fridge magnets. Its vagueness goes to the heart of this administration’s failure to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic effectively. A deadly virus has been treated, from the very start, not as a public health emergency, but as a public relations crisis.

It takes a very special kind of denialism to look at the figures published by the Office for National statistics last week, confirming that England had a higher excess mortality rate than any other European country it was compared to in the first half of 2020, and conclude that all that is really required is a catchier slogan.

Those three words – pilfered from the Catalans’ “Distància, Mans, Mascaretta” – were reportedly extensively polled and focus group-tested – at great expense. What was not tested, I am quite certain, was the central notion of their fitness for purpose.

Three-word slogans come from the world of advertising, in which a good strap-line can add a halo of values to a brand. “Just do it”, “every little helps”, or “I’m loving it” are great at being memorable – but are they the appropriate vehicle for passing pn detailed information? 

It says a lot about the Johnson administration’s view of the public that it thinks people can only absorb jingles.

At a time when Coronavirus guidance is becoming increasingly complicated – with different restrictions applying to different venues, regions and people – slogans will arguably detract from the message. What the Government needs is people’s sustained focus, attention to detail, and continued cooperation. By waving banners with facile catchphrases, it is effectively saying “this is all you need to take away”.

Not that the other end of the spectrum is desirable.

Having announced significant changes to the rules for four million people living in northern England via Twitter – the Westminster elite’s communication tool of choice – at 9:22 pm, less than three hours before they came into effect, the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock took to the airwaves the next morning insisting that the new rules were “crystal clear”. But he proceeded to explain them further with the eloquence of a malfunctioning android. 

Thus, the Government retreated to the only thing it knows: campaigning mode.

“Get Brexit done” and “oven-ready deal” can win votes, but – as is clear from the Brexit negotiation stalemate – they actually mean nothing in the real world. Likewise, COVID-19 is being treated like a political battle to be won. It is not. 


Pretty Confusing

How does “Hands, Face, Space” help people to work out whether the new restrictions apply in their town or not? How does it help them to understand whether a mask is required when getting a takeaway? How does it help them to reconcile Boris Johnson’s “squeezing of the brake pedal” in easing restrictions with the Chancellor’s “eat out to help out” message, launched on the same day?

It does not. They may as well be told to “take back control” or that “Brexit means Brexit”. 

The tentative nature of this desperate move was made painfully clear by the Prime Minister’s seeking of validation from journalists. “I hope that was pretty… you know, that was pretty punchy, I think”, he told them in the press conference announcing the measures – ending it with telling Professor Chris Witty: “I think I repeated that often enough.” 

This is a Government misfiring on all cylinders. The worst health results of any comparable nation. The worst economic outlook of any comparable nation. And the unshakeable belief that it can all be solved by recruiting someone more affable to deliver inane shibboleths. 

It says a lot about the Johnson administration’s view of the public that it thinks people can only absorb jingles; that having to pay attention is a bore; and that meaningless-but-memorable sound bites provide a better approach. It is doubly ironic that this comes from the same gang that insisted every voter understood the full complexities of Brexit and accused anyone who said otherwise of treating the public with contempt. 

Or perhaps the choke-point is higher up. Perhaps it is Johnson and the Cabinet of assembled nincompoops, whose sole qualification seems to be undying loyalty to the Brexit cause, who can only absorb and repeat information in the form of a heads-shoulders-knees-and-toes children’s rhyme. 

This is, after all, the Prime Minister who missed every COBRA meeting in January and February and ordered his staff to only submit memos of a page or less. Maybe it is not the public’s ability to absorb complex information that Dominic Cummings doesn’t trust, but his boss’. 

The beauty of the three-word slogan is that it can mean different things to different people. But this quality becomes a danger in a public health emergency.

Here, the desired result is precisely the opposite: to instruct people unequivocally on what they need to do; to leave no room for misinterpretation; to have everyone extract the exact same meaning from words. 

Confusion has, and will continue to, cost lives.


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