In preparation for tonight’s televised address regarding the second phase of lock-down, prime minister Boris Johnson has launched an ambiguous advice slogan. “Stay alert” has, apparently, become the name of the game – but has left many scratching their heads.

A crack in the UK’s ‘four nations’ approach

Johnson’s slogan has been met with fierce criticism from, among many others, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething and first minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster. All three have agreed that, as far as their respective regions are concerned, the updated message doesn’t apply.

According to Sturgeon, it’s up to Johnson to “decide what’s most appropriate for England but, given the critical point we’re at in tackling the virus, ‘stay home save lives’ remains my clear message to Scotland at this stage”. 

Gething and Foster have both echoed the above sentiment, stating they will continue to follow the same advice as before until the wave of coronavirus infections in the UK reaches its peak. At this delicate point in the pandemic, they believe it’s still too early to broadcast anything but clear, firm advice.

So what about “stay alert”? How are we meant to interpret the new slogan pushed by No.10? Any way we like, of course.

What ‘stay alert’ really means

The brilliant thing about “stay alert” is its infinite interpretability. Does it mean we can begin to spend more time outdoors? Does it signal a return to business as usual but with extra hand-washing? Is it a nod to “constant vigilance!”, the favourite slogan of Harry Potter character Alastor Moody, because nothing has actually changed?

“Stay alert” is perfectly fluid and adaptable to any and all post-pandemic outcomes – whether that means a sudden and tragic jump in death tolls, a people and economy brought to their knees by the reckless advice of responsibility-phobic rulers, or a slow but steady climb out of the deepest social and economic ravine of the past century. 

The new-nonsense slogan is a sleight of hand by which Boris and his cronies – in broad daylight but under cover of (ostensibly) duty – transfer responsibility for the ravages of coronavirus from themselves to us. We, the same people who can’t stop meeting for beer in the park and visiting our girlfriends in the middle of a global pandemic, are now left to interpret this million-dollar riddle as we please. 

What we need instead

As the UK reaches its eighth week of lock-down and the spring weather beckons us to a seemingly harmless outdoors, people are understandably getting antsy. Especially if they’re among the lucky ones whose health and finances haven’t been particularly hit – they just want this whole thing over with. 

Now is not the time for ambiguous messaging and a gallant attitude. As the death toll keeps climbing, what people need are clear rules they can trust about what’s safe and what isn’t. Instead, we get a symbolic walkout in the form of the unnervingly non-committal “stay alert”.

As always, the likeliest to fare well under these updated circumstances are those with a safety net in place that allows them to err on the side of caution. Those of us with responsibilities that can be neither postponed nor delegated will have to bite the bullet and go out into a world that is still unsafe, no matter how breezy the slogan.

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