Sketch: Raising awareness of awareness
Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save lives. “We want now to have a message which encourages people to go to work”, housing minister Robert Jenrick explained, before later clarifying, “We want people to stay home as much as possible.”
Welcome to the relaxation of lockdown. It’s not that relaxing.
You can get a nanny to come to your house, but you can’t have a relative come over to look after your kids. You can get a cleaner in, but not see your gran. You can go to work – in fact you may be expected to – but you can’t use public transport to get there. Unless you have to. Then you should. But you really shouldn’t be going outside.
With restrictions relaxed, people in England can meet with more than one person from a different household, Dominic Raab explained, before later expanding on his point, to announce you are absolutely not allowed to meet more than one person from outside your household.
As Boris Johnson announced, in a TV address on next steps: “We must stay alert. We must continue to control the virus and save lives. And yet we must also recognise that this campaign against the virus has come at colossal cost to our way of life. We can see it all around us in the shuttered shops and abandoned businesses and darkened pubs and restaurants.”
So far so good, though it may be worth mentioning that the man giving this ‘stay alert’ warning appeared to be doing so while sitting on the wrong side of his desk, which itself seemed to be jammed halfway through a doorway.
“There are millions of people who are both fearful of this terrible disease,” he said. “And at the same time also fearful of what this long period of enforced inactivity will do to their livelihoods and their mental and physical wellbeing. To their futures and the futures of their children. So I want to provide tonight – for you – the shape of a plan to address both fears. Both to beat the virus and provide the first sketch of a road map for reopening society.”
Fair enough. So what was the plan? Basically, the UK is now using a five-stage warning system, running from one, which is green, to five, which is red, though Johnson didn’t explain what three of the five stages meant. And the graphic appeared to show us stuck between two of them. Oh and also, and this is actually quite important, none of this really applies to anyone in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
So what does ‘stay alert’ mean anyway? And, apart from anything else, why would you have launched an awareness campaign, based in raising awareness of awareness, and not included a meerkat mascot, to lift morale? There’s nothing more alert than a meerkat. As the UK Government’s most skilled communicator Dominic Cummings could have taken on the role, not least because he already looks quite a bit like a meerkat, albeit one that has made a series of very poor choices.
But how do you stay alert to something you can’t see? As Robert Jenrick was forced to explain, as part of what appeared to be a sacrificial tour of the nation’s TV studios following the PM’s address, “Stay alert will mean stay alert by staying home as much as possible.”
“Stay alert will mean stay alert.” It was a lovely throwback to Theresa May’s time in government, if nothing else. Lockdown means lockdown. We will have a red, white and blue pandemic.
At times it’s hard not to find yourself wondering how different it would be if May was still here. In fairness, she probably would have spent more time at the office, if she wasn’t off social distancing in fields of wheat. David Cameron, in contrast, appears to have a thorough grasp of the required response. In fact he appears to have been self-isolating since sometime in mid-2016.
Well the good news is that, shortly after announcing its new six-word slogan, Number 10 was then compelled to release a rather wordier document explaining what the message actually means. A bad sign, you might think.
But that’s wrong, because it is a totally normal thing to do. And anyway, it’s actually all very clear. As the statement explains, “We can help control the virus if we all stay alert.”
So how do we do that? Well, apparently, we “stay alert by staying home as much as possible.”
So the advice is just stay at home, then? We were already doing that. And why would leaving the house make you less alert? Where have people been going for their daily exercise? Opium dens?
It was a mess, though you could probably have guessed that much solely based on the fact most three line slogans don’t require hundreds of words of explanatory notes, like the back of a Jane Austen novel.
Hopefully the messaging is clear, but even if it isn’t, the guidance will probably change pretty soon anyway. Perhaps we will move down a level on the PM’s chart. And until then, maybe just try to relax and stay calm. But also, stay very alert. Stay calm but also hypervigilant. Go to work but stay inside. Go outside but don’t leave your house. Be the meerkat.