Although we have a plan, it is a conditional plan.—Boris Johnson
Last night, 11 May 2020, our pallid, convalescent prime minister announced the government’s strategy for gradually easing the coronavirus lockdown. The address was designed to communicate what steps we must take in order to gradually reopen the country and why we must take them. It should have been an exercise in clear communication. Instead, it has sparked many competing interpretations. This is not solely Johnson’s failing—though his speech bore the traces of the spin doctoring and empty rhetoric that are so widespread in political discourse: we don’t need “a world-beating system” for testing and tracing, for example. This is not the coronavirus Olympics. We just need a system that works. In general, however, Johnson’s confusion is characteristic of the very human muddle that the pandemic has revealed. To tackle an international threat of this scale requires global coordination, but we don’t live in the world of The Expanse. There is no planetary government, but a wide variety of political systems and majority parties of different persuasions, whose interpretations of how to deal with the crisis have varied from draconian lockdowns in which civilians have even been killed by the police for leaving their homes to relative inaction. Some countries, including our own, have shifted from one approach to the other. Even within the UK, just as Johnson “strongly encouraged” those of us who live in England—including here in London, the hardest hit area—to return to work, the Scottish and Welsh leaders told their constituents that it was too dangerous for them to loosen lockdown measures more than minimally as yet and that they must stay at home. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon commented:
the Scottish government is not yet confident that these changes can be made safely in Scotland yet without running the risk of the virus potentially running out of control again.
In a liberal democracy, if you want citizens to comply with voluntary measures, there must be at least an appearance of broad consensus as to their efficacy. This consensus is patently absent.
Much of the language used to describe the measures taken to combat the pandemic has been opaque—sometimes, perhaps, deliberately so. Even the nature of the measures themselves is unclear. In last night’s speech, Johnson referred to them first as “the rules” but, a few minutes later, as mere “advice.” The official UK government website favours the term guidance. This, however, suggests that compliance is voluntary—an implication at odds with the behaviour of some UK police, who have been enforcing the guidelines: a contradiction in terms.
The most ubiquitous term, social distancing, is perhaps the least helpful. It encourages people to be antisocial, at the very time when many are lonely and isolated. It is an established term borrowed from epidemiology—but that does not make it suitable for public policy statements. The crucial point is the need to stay at least two metres apart. We should have swiftly renamed it the two-metre rule and, instead of the vague injunction to practise social distancing, simply told people to remain at that distance from each other at all times, except with members of their own households.
This kind of obfuscation is especially evident in the most confusing part of Boris Johnson’s speech, the advice about returning to work. His tortuous syntax betrays the fact that there is more bluster than confidence here: “So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.” This is followed by an especially odd non sequitur: “we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible.” I expected the first phrase to be followed by a suggestion of how the government would help ensure people’s safety in travelling to work: perhaps by expanding the cycle lane network, coming to an arrangement with Uber or providing more buses and trains. Instead, the responsibility is quickly shifted back to the general public. If you are among the two-thirds of Brits who normally rely on public transport to get into work, what should you do, given these two mutually incompatible instructions: go to work and don’t use public transport? Johnson uses a variation of the phrase “we must” (occasionally “I must” or “you must”) eighteen times in the short speech. This urgency is incompatible with leaving it up to people’s own best judgement as to which option to choose.
The term exercise is also used in the oddest way. The first example Johnson gives of the “unlimited outdoor exercise” that is once again permitted is that “you can sit in the sun in your local park.” This reveals that the one-hour-a-day exemption from the requirement to stay at home was never about exercise to begin with. It has always been about fresh air.
If you want people to comply with regulations, the measures have to make sense to them. To many of us, it seemed bizarre that a person sitting under a tree reading or lying in a spot of grass sunbathing was officially contravening the rules about social distancing, even when she was far away from other people, while someone walking, jogging or biking along the same path as everyone else was not. These inconsistencies erode confidence in government and encourage both police overreach and the kind of net curtain-twitching busybodies who are dying for an excuse to inform on their neighbours. It is needlessly divisive. It also denies the obvious therapeutic effects of fresh air and sunshine. And it’s disingenuous: most people don’t go outdoors for the virtuous purpose of maintaining their physical fitness. This isn’t ancient Sparta. People go out into the sunshine for pleasure. As long as they remain at a 2m distance from others, pleasure should be a perfectly acceptable motive.
Boris’s speech was also notable for what it left out. There was no mention of the role of handwashing or of the use of masks. The endless contention surrounding masks during this crisis has been highly characteristic of one of the chief reasons communication has been so ineffective: an inability to publicly state we don’t know or we have changed our minds.
It’s obvious that we’re improvising here. Hence the shift from masks should only be used by health workers to masks are compulsory in many locales. I witnessed two waves of large-scale shaming on Twitter: first of those who were wearing masks (so selfish: they should be reserved for health workers) and then of people who were not wearing masks (one of whom was physically dragged off a bus by police officers in the US). Meanwhile, masks have simply seemingly disappeared from the official public discourse here in the UK.
These inconsistencies are inevitable: there are differences in opinion on how to deal with the pandemic and changes and updates to policy have to be made as we gradually learn more about the virus. Transparency and humility about this would have helped people accept it. Wildly veering from one extreme to another, while attempting to maintain a tone of absolutist self-righteousness, will convince no one.
As Razib Khan has astutely pointed out, the pandemic has revealed the shortcomings of a political class obsessed with rhetoric. Both Trump’s infantile insistence on calling Covid-19 the Chinese virus and the American left’s obsession with politically correct language—the hysteria over even mention—not use—cases of the N-word is a good illustration of this—are symptomatic of a culture that encourages the belief that words have a talismanic power and that, by changing the name of something, we can alter the thing itself. Viruses, however, don’t care what we call them. The solution to the pandemic is to be found in action, not in commentary and critique. But language is important to communicate ideas and persuade others to take necessary actions. To do that, we should avoid condescending euphemisms, confusing misnomers and dishonest protestations of a certainty we don’t feel.