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Malachi O'Doherty

Why the success or failure of PM's Stay Alert slogan will be measured in human beings living or dying

Malachi O'Doherty

The challenge now isn't to stay cheerful as the body count rises ... it is to reduce the death toll. By Malachi O'Doherty


Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation about coronavirus. Photo: PA Video/Downing Street Pool/PA Wire

Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation about coronavirus. Photo: PA Video/Downing Street Pool/PA Wire


Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation about coronavirus. Photo: PA Video/Downing Street Pool/PA Wire

About 1,700 people are killed on British roads every year. This is appalling carnage. If we were at war and losing soldiers in these numbers, there would be enormous pressure on the Government to end that war and bring the troops home.

In Northern Ireland we lose about 60 people every year to road accidents. Proportionate to wider British figures, this is good. Still, it is so horrific in real terms that we seek to attack the lax attitudes which lead to road deaths with dramatic and shocking television campaigns.

The one that freaks me out most is the one in which a speeding car overturns on a bend and rolls through a hedge. We don't actually see it crushing a group of children at play, but blink and you'll think that's what you did see. We know this works. It is now a gross social no-no to try and persuade someone to have a drink before driving home.

We have done the same to persuade people to give up smoking, showing them the toxic fumes.

About 80,000 people die of smoking-related illnesses in Britain every year. That's lower than the current death rate from Covid-19.

In the whole of the UK so far, that is since the start of March, over 30,000 people have died. In Northern Ireland, the figure is 430 at the time I am writing this.

So, logically, the Government, which seeks to shock us into regulating our driving, our drinking and our smoking, should have proportionately amplified the message over the virus. It should be shrieking at us.

We should be seeing nightly information films on television to illustrate the horror and the scale of this pestilence.

We should be seeing images of people choking to death.

We should be seeing the ease of transmission of the virus demonstrated.

We should be shown how the virus can move from a child on a bike in the park into the recreation room of a care home, for those places are in lockdown, so it can only be coming from outside.

The road safety messages are getting through. Last year we had the second-lowest number since records began in the 1930s.

The messages to stay at home and stay alert are slackening their hold on the popular imagination.

On Facebook people who think they are very clever are scoffing at the whole thing.

We see that disregard for an indigestible reality in the increased traffic on the roads, on the gatherings in parks, in the carelessness with which people will walk or cycle past us on the footpath.

Normality is resilient. It is easier and more comforting to believe that this is a fuss over nothing than that a global calamity has descended.

The Government's response to this is to change the message: Stay Alert.

One can imagine why Boris Johnson would not want to emphasise the bleakness of what has come among us. The death toll reflects on his failure to control the virus.

Better to keep a calm, measured tone, not pile on the panic. And, sure, even as tens of thousands of people die, most of us don't have a close relative who has been intubated in intensive care, who has suffocated as their lungs were eaten up, or died at the other end of the phone while a nice young nurse translated the death rattle into a sweet goodbye.

Johnson was right to start off by assuring us that our lockdown sacrifices have saved lives, about 200,000 lives by the estimate he quoted. Hard to take in.

True, we have to think about mental health as well. The isolation and the contemplation of death are burdensome. I have woken up some mornings with a gnawing anxiety in my stomach. Other days I am fine.

Much depends on how well I have been able to keep my mind off the threat to my health, or even just to the cafe-centred way of life I had enjoyed for years.

I suspect that is how it has been for you, too. But the challenge now is not to stay cheerful while the death toll mounts; it is to reduce the death toll.

And if we have people getting careless about that, then we need to drive the message home to them that they are potential killers.

There have been wartime analogies, which are trite, but in wartime the people knew that they had responsibilities to each other.

The message Careless Talk Costs Lives warned people about sharing information that might be overheard by a spy.

Why don't we tell them now that A Careless Walk Costs Lives, that brushing up against a stranger on a stroll through the park is as offensive and contemptible as spitting at them would be in normal times.

A smoker would not blow smoke in your face. We would regard that as the worst of bad manners.

Yet, somehow, it is acceptable in a time of global contagion to ignore the guidance that for the good of your own health and the health of others you should stand back.

There will be much analysis in the years to come of the political decisions that were taken in this time and one of the things that will be hardest to explain is how negligent some people were.

We ignored the suffering in care homes, because we have no connection with such places anyway.

Those people are already invisible to us.

The British Government hired professionals to refine the message it wants us to receive. It would like more people to go back to work if they can manage it without taking the bus or train.

Communications experts devoted time and energy to devising a refined approach. They have come up with a slogan to guide people on how to behave when they are out and about: Stay Alert.

Good. Stay implies continuity with past behaviours. Alert. Yes, walk the streets, or negotiate your way round a building site, with a heightened consciousness of the danger.

But the message is already being interpreted as a relaxation of the previous rules and one that will confuse efforts in other parts of the UK to urge greater caution.

And the power of this new slogan is about to be tested like no marketing campaign before. We will measure its success or failure in lives lost. That's a bit hairier to contemplate than book sales, or votes.

And it's too ambiguous, too chancy, and leaves too much to discretion.

Johnson would have served us better if he had told us what it's like to stare death in the face.

For he knows.

Belfast Telegraph