The shifting tone of Government messaging and slogans from the past year

Taz Ali, PA
·5-min read

Since the start of the pandemic, the Government has driven the message of how to combat the spread of Covid-19 through the use of snappy slogans and televised briefings, but experts believe some of the messaging has not always been clear and consistent.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had previously admitted that over time, the rules have been “complicated and confusing” for the public.

Sally Dibb, professor of marketing and society at Coventry University, said effective messaging needed to follow four basic principles – it should be simple, consistent, well-targeted and deliver on what it promises.

“Arguably, the Government’s messaging has failed on all counts,” she told the PA news agency.

Stay at home sign in high street
People were instructed to stay at home in the first lockdown in March 2020 (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“In the UK, the coronavirus messaging has shifted around all over the place and has lacked a central anchor.”

She also said the advice behind the Government’s slogans were “often ludicrously complex”.

But the Government said its messaging had been clear and consistent.

A Government spokesperson said: “Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic we have set out clear, consistent and targeted instructions to the public about what people need to do to prevent the spread of the disease and stay safe.

“We have been clear that our priority is to protect the NHS and save lives.

“Our public information campaigns have reached an estimated 95% of adults an average of 17 times, and data shows that our multi-channel communications approach is having a significant impact on people’s behaviour.”

Over the past year, the Government has encouraged people to follow advice with the use of slogans, which have changed over time depending on the severity of the pandemic and to coincide with the gradual easing – and imposing – of restrictions.

When the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, the Prime Minister introduced the slogan “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” as non-essential businesses such as bars, pubs and restaurants as well as places of worship were instructed to shut.

Prof Dibb praised the “Stay at home” message, which she described as “specific and unambiguous” which clearly instructed people how to behave.

The messaging then changed in May to “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives” in a move to help ease the UK lockdown, but not end it immediately.

Matt Hancock stood on podium with
The ‘Stay alert’ messaging was criticised for being unclear (Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA)

At the time, health experts expressed concern that the slogan lacked clarity and was confusing, with fears it may lead to an increase in “risky behaviour” from the public.

These sentiments were shared by Dr Wasim Ahmed, lecturer in digital business at Newcastle University, who said the Government messaging was “tricky to follow” on some occasions.

He told PA: “The ‘Stay alert’ messaging could have been thought out a bit better and this was backed up by Research by The Future Care Capital (FCC) which found that the ‘Stay alert’ messaging lacked clarity.”

On June 23, Mr Johnson announced a raft of changes to lockdown measures in England which came into force on July 4.

As more people were allowed to leave home and socialise with others and more businesses were allowed to reopen, Government messaging took a more optimistic tone.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak places an Eat Out to Help Out sticker in the window of a business (Jeff J Mitchell/PA)

Mr Johnson urged the public to remember the slogan “hands, face, space”, which was followed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s “Eat out to help out”, a month-long scheme in August which saw Britons eat more than 100 million discounted meals.

However, as the winter season drew nearer the Government faced backlash over its handling of a rise in coronavirus cases and its backtracking on rules over the Christmas period and new year.

Following a month-long national lockdown in England in November, the Prime Minister was forced to scrap Christmas bubbles – allowing families to reunite over the festive period – just days before December 25.

On January 4, the Prime Minister announced primary schools, secondary schools and colleges will move to remote education as England went into a third national lockdown – a day after he said he had “no doubt” that schools were safe.

TV showing Boris Johnson placed near Christmas tree
The Government has been criticised for making U-turns on Covid-19 rules at short notice (Victoria Jones/PA)

Prof Dibb said people’s trust in the Government is damaged by these sudden shifts in the rules.

“Changing the rules at late notice undermined the public’s confidence in the Government’s competence to handle the pandemic response, which can bubble up in frustration that reduces willingness to follow the rules,” she said.

“With the death rate exceeding 125,000 and widespread criticism of how the pandemic has been handled, large swathes of the public seem to have lost faith in Government’s ability to deliver on what they promised.”

More recently, the Government launched TV adverts to reinforce the “Stay at home” message, one of which showed viewers close ups of frontline healthcare workers and Covid-19 patients and asked: “Can you look them in the eyes and tell them you’re helping by staying at home?”

Dr Amelie Gourdon-Kanhukamwe, a senior lecturer in behavioural science at Kingston University, said research has shown appealing to guilt can be less effective in achieving behaviour change compared with appealing to positive emotions.

She told PA: “Some of the recent research on vaccination communication that I have been involved in has highlighted that promoting autonomy is more likely to be effective than using messages that might be perceived to be controlling or raise feelings of guilt.”