BORIS JOHNSON and his top aide, Dominic Cummings, are masters of the snappy slogan. “Take Back Control” transformed the EU referendum. “Get Brexit Done” garnered Mr Johnson an 80-seat majority in last December’s general election. “Stay at Home” has been observed assiduously by Britons during the seven-week coronavirus lockdown.
But the greatest advertising gurus sometimes pitch a flop. So it was with “Stay Alert, Control the Virus”, a slogan Mr Johnson unveiled on May 10th. It marks a new phase in the government’s campaign against coronavirus, as it takes tentative steps to unwind the lockdown and stimulate economic activity, while seeking to avoid an uncontrollable growth in transmission.
The slogan and the new guidelines announced alongside it created a sense not of renewed purpose but of confusion. “I don’t know what ‘stay alert’ means,” said Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, describing it as “vague and imprecise”. Leaders in Wales and Northern Ireland, which under Britain’s system of devolved government are also responsible for their own lockdown policies, also said they’d be sticking with the original slogan.
YouGov, a pollster, found that only 30% of voters claimed to understand the new campaign. The Police Federation, a cops’ union, said police would struggle to enforce woolly rules. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, reinforced the impression of confusion when he said on May 11th that adult children living apart from their parents would be able to see both their parents simultaneously. They can’t: only two adults from different households may meet at once. He also clarified that the measures come into force on May 13th, and not May 11th as the government had originally said.
In truth, the campaign reflects only a slight loosening of the lockdown in England. Most shops, cinemas and restaurants will remain shut, and most public gatherings will remain banned. Employees who cannot work from home are given greater encouragement to turn up. Face coverings will be encouraged. The public will be able to sunbathe and picnic in parks, as well as take exercise, and be allowed to drive to beaches and beauty spots. Members of different households will be able to meet, but only in pairs, outside, while keeping a distance of two metres. The slight relaxation will be reversed if the infection rate climbs too high. If it continues to fall, schools may open to some pupils from June, and pubs and hairdressers from July.
The government acknowledged the difficulty of moving from a clear message to a nuanced one. “When you’re coming out of a message that is so gloriously simple as ‘stay at home’, there will inevitably be complexities,” the prime minister told the House of Commons. To mitigate the problem, an education campaign is planned to help the public take “responsible risk judgments”. A government paper published on May 11th detailing the plans acknowledges that the unwinding process will be slow and progress uncertain: a vaccine may never be found, and the data the government holds on the prevalence of the disease and the effectiveness of suppression measures is imprecise.
Britain’s poor record in controlling the disease—it has the highest number of covid-19 related deaths in Europe, and the fourth-largest on the continent in relation to its population—is causing Mr Johnson considerable discomfort. That has been sharpened in recent weeks by the new leader of the opposition. Sir Keir Starmer, a barrister with a forensic manner, is giving the prime minister a hard time in Parliament.
Mr Johnson also faces conflicting political pressures. Voters are nervous about ending the lockdown: 46% think today’s measures go too far, while 10% think they are inadequate. Yet many Conservative MPs, who abhor the restrictions on personal liberty and fear the coming economic toll, have been growing restive. The new slogan, which creates the impression of relaxation while delivering little, risks displeasing both.