‘Hands, Face, Space’: a year of simple slogans mask complicated Covid-19 rules


One year and 128,000 deaths later, we are still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. As UK restrictions begin to ease and we slowly re-enter so-called ‘normal’ society, could the government’s messaging surrounding Covid-19 have been improved?

From the minute the virus reached our shores, the government took to using snappy slogans to get their message across. From ‘Stay At Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ right through to the current emphasis on ‘Hands, Face, Space’, a simple rule of three has been used to try and get the public to think of both the national and personal impact of breaking Covid-19 rules. 

These easy-to-repeat slogans painted over a multitude of confusing and anomalous guidelines which arguably do not make sense. For example, so-called ‘essential’ shops, a broad definition that somehow included Greggs and Hotel Chocolat, were allowed to open, whilst restaurants and pubs with outdoor spaces remained closed. Pubs were allowed to open so long as patrons scanned the Track and Trace app on arrival, but no such guidelines are in place for supermarkets. Only groups of thirty are allowed at weddings and funerals, yet thousands of fans will potentially be allowed into sporting events if trials go to plan. 

‘Inconsistent policy is mirrored in the constant morphing of these slogans’

Inconsistent policy is mirrored in the constant morphing of the aforementioned slogans. The change from ‘Stay At Home’ to ‘Stay Local’ was so ambiguous that the Prime Minister himself came unstuck, with his cycle ride around the Olympic Park causing an outcry of public disaffection. When placed next to the fining of two women who had driven five miles from their houses to walk together, evidently no-one truly knew what the ‘spirit’ of Covid-19 rules were. 

As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words, something which has hamstrung the government on more than one occasion. The most notorious example thereof was Dominic Cummings’s ill-conceived drive to Barnard Castle, a scandal he is understandably yet to shake off. 

A clear breach of Covid-19 rules, it provided an opportunity for the government to solidify its position on Covid-19 by firing Cummings and therefore proving that they were taking this pandemic seriously. After Boris’s boasts of shaking hands with Covid-19 patients merely weeks earlier, this was a big ask. Boris’s belief that Cummings had done what ‘any father would have done’ dealt a serious blow to government attempts to keep the public on-side. A Reuters survey found that trust in government as a source of Covid-19 information decreased by 19% between April and the end of May 2020. Significantly, the Daily Mirror and The Guardian’s investigation into Cummings’ trip to Durham was published on 22nd May. 

As students, we have significant cause to feel particularly hard done by, with the government seemingly ignoring our very existence. Early in the pandemic, students were unfairly blamed for spreading the virus. From there, any mention of university life has been absent from government briefings, with information regarding face-to-face teaching only coming once Vice-Chancellors asked for clarification.

‘As society begins to re-open, we need clear and concise guidance from the government more than at any other point during the last twelve months’

When this clarification finally did come, it made matters even more confusing, with face-to-face teaching forbidden to continue until the 17th of May. This is despite the permitted restarting of university-wide sport, music, theatre, and the reopening of both university and city bars. One tweet perfectly sums up the inconsistency in these rules: ‘a lecturer and five students walk into a bar. it’s only illegal if they talk about maths’.

Hindsight is, as we know, a wonderful thing. It is impossible to know exactly the impact of different decisions that the government have and have not made. I think the government made the right choice in swiftly abandoning the ‘herd immunity’ model that has ravaged other countries. It seems fairly uncontroversial to say that had Boris’s commitment to business made way for strong leadership led by science, we would likely be in a much better position than we are presently. 

As society begins to re-open, we need clear and concise guidance from the government more than at any other point during the last twelve months. Let’s hope lessons have been learned, for both now and for the future, so that we really can ‘Protect the NHS’ and ‘Save Lives’. 

Photo: Duncan C via Flickr

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