Alert Alert !!!

My eyes are peeled. I’m scanning the horizon.  I check behind.  And to the sides.   Everyone I see will be scrutinised from head to foot, until I am satisfied they offer no threat.  Every vehicle will be checked.  Every house I pass will be noted and its details recoded.  Nothing goes unnoticed.  I am a coiled spring.

I am alert. So alert.  I am positively tingling with alertness.  Alert is my new middle name.  Beyond alert.  I’m more alert than Alert Ali McAlert, winner of last year’s ‘Mr. Alert’ competition.

I must be safe from the COVID-19 virus right?

Stay alert

If you didn’t know (because either you’ve been living in a cave, or somewhere outside Britain) this is the British Government’s campaign to keep the public safe from corona virus.

Stay Alert (what?) Control the Virus (er, how?) Save lives (but, who, where, how, che?)

My main question is this:  Is this the worst piece of public policy communication in history?

Seems like a no-brainer to me.  It’s the biggest stinker ever.

Why do I say that? (I don’t hear you ask)

Well for a start it makes no sense.  Staying alert will make no difference whatsoever to anything relating to the virus.  Or anything else, except I’ll be exhausted rather quickly.  Is alertness somehow relevant?  Am I at more at risk while sleeping than I am when fully ‘on my guard’?  I think not.

Controlling the virus is not something I know how to do, nor something it’s in my power to do so instructing me to do it leaves me floundering.

And saving lives, while undoubtedly a good thing, is not really in my remit – I don’t think I’m being asked to find someone in danger and rescue them, so what exactly is it I’m being urged to do?

Alice Bennett, a senior lecturer in contemporary literature, put it better than me, on Twitter:

“It’s a fantasy that we can ‘control the virus’, but we can’t actually control our attention either. ‘Stay Alert’ is the ‘Never Forget’ of public safety messaging: actionless, objectless, infinitely expansive”

Inevitably the authors of the campaign have felt compelled to defend it:

“The truth is that people really understand the message, people understand what ‘Stay Alert’ means,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program .

In fact, polling by YouGov, on the Monday following its launch, suggested only 30 percent of people knew what “Stay Alert” means — and even Tory MPs privately expressed dismay at the botched messaging before the key document was finally published at lunchtime on Monday.

Apparently, the original intention was that the five letters making up ALERT would form an acronym for five actions people could take to prevent the spread of the disease.  But according to Politico, the graphics for the new campaign were leaked to the Sunday Telegraph, the weekend before, leading to what is known in the trade as a ‘botched launch’.  And no acronym was forthcoming.

No wonder the campaign has been met with a mixture of derision and confusion.

I couldn’t help take a quick peek at what some experts in Government communications thought about it.  A couple of senior staffers at the Central Office of Information (The Government’s centre of excellence for public communications, until it was broken up a few years ago) summarised their thoughts as follows (no names, no pack-drill):

“I wonder what was the thought process that went into the new slogan: BE ALERT, CONTROL THE VIRUS, SAVE LIVES.  This slogan is meaningless and confusing.”

“It’s a box-ticking exercise that clearly doesn’t give a shit about whether it actually changes behaviour or helps people.”

So far so utterly damning.  But there’s another side to this.  Because, if there’s one area where the current British Government is generally sure-footed, it’s mass communications made simple.  The Brexit campaign was a triumph of persuasion, where the case to be made was logically er flimsy at best.  And the last general election saw the Conservative Party wipe the floor with their opponents, despite a fairly iffy record in government.  All of this was achieved with a single-minded approach to communications based on a religious adherence to polling and feedback from focus groups.  It has been a thoroughly professional job.  They gave every impression of knowing what they were doing.  Until now.

So what went wrong?

Stay alert for further bulletins…….

Climate change is a thing. Crikey. Who knew?

I’m writing this on the day when the IPCC has issued its latest report to tell us that it is beyond doubt that human activity is driving climate change.

It makes grim reading.

As the Guardian puts it:

“Eight years in the making, authored by the world’s leading climate scientists and approved by 195 national governments, the report confirmed the meaning of the evidence before our eyes: the cumulative impact of human activity since the Industrial Revolution is “unequivocally” causing rapid and potentially catastrophic changes to the climate.”

No shit Sherlock?

Here’s an excerpt from a speech I read recently:

“The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising,and the temperature of the earth’s surface is increasing.

“There is now an effective consensus among the world’s leading scientists and serious and well informed people outside the scientific community that there is a discernible human influence on the climate, and a link between the concentration of carbon dioxide and the increase in temperature.”

“Over the next century temperatures might rise by a further 1 to 3.5 degrees centigrade, and that sea levels might rise by between 15 and 95 centimetres. Some of that impact is probably unavoidable, because it results from current emissions.”

“It is an important moment for us. A moment when analysis demonstrates the need for action and solutions.

“If we are all to take responsibility for the future of our planet, then it falls to us to begin to take precautionary action now.”

Who gave this speech? Who could this visionary be?

Was it the view of a politician jumping on the bandwagon in summer 2021 as we head for the COP21 talks in Scotland? An eco-warrior splinter group, demonstrating on the streets? A Think Tank? University research body?

Strangely, no.

It was a speech given by the Chairman of Oil Major BP, at Stanford University in – and this is the good bit – May 1997.

That’s twenty four years ago.

It was followed by a global advertising campaign and lobbying of governments all over the world – not just by enlightened energy companies but by NGOs, science bodies and campaigners of all kinds. For twenty four years.

We have known all of this for decades. Of course we have.

The only people who didn’t know this, were paid not to know it.

That’s what really makes you despair. Because that hasn’t changed either.

Save Buckbeak, er Geronimo

It’s 2021. The UN IPCC has just published its most apocalyptic warning yet that climate change is bringing human civilisation to a grizzly end.

The world is in the grip of the worst pandemic any of us has ever experienced.

The big story of the day is about the perils of testing for a dangerous and highly infectious disease, which could threaten a whole population if allowed to get out of hand.

It’s about following through on the difficult and sometimes painful ramifications of the testing regime.

It’s the story of Geronimo, the alpaca, grazing peacefully in a field in Gloucestershire.

Old McDonald had a farm And on that farm she had an … alpaca.

In case you hadn’t heard, Geronimo tested positive for bovine tuberculosis four years ago and was sentenced to be exterminated. It hasn’t happened yet, partly because the legal appeals have taken this long, and partly because there is a popular movement to save him. Celebrities, like national treasure Joanna Lumley and BBC nature presenter Chris Packham, have lent their voices to the clamour. A hundred thousand supporters have signed a petition. The Daily Mail and other papers are backing Geronimo, and his owner, Helen McDonald in her fight to save him. Protesters have even created a ‘human shield’ around his field.

It’s pretty tough on veterinary nurse, Ms McDonald, because she is forbidden from trading livestock, or receiving income from them.

Meanwhile Geronimo posted on his Facebook account (yes I know)…. ‘Stressed and upset to find ourselves in this awful situation but so very grateful for all the support from everywhere!’ 

Whether this is a hideous injustice or an example of the authorities being rightly cautious, to prevent the spread of a dangerous disease, it’s a great, if rather sad, story.

In Geronimo’s defence I feel bound to say that his owner has repeatedly argued he should have the more definitive test, to establish beyond doubt whether he is sick. He has been healthy, by all accounts, for several years now, suggesting the original test may have been a false positive. In recent years, nine other alpacas have been destroyed in this way and all of them were subsequently shown in post mortem to have been healthy, despite originally testing positive.

On the other hand, it’s tempting to be suspicious, when popular campaigns like this get up a head of steam. Joanna Lumley has a track record of getting stuff done in good causes. But I heard the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, speaking in Geronimo’s defence on the radio the other day, which immediately made me conclude (perhaps unkindly) someone is making some money out of this. And if the Daily Mail supports something, it’s always a good rule of thumb to oppose it.

For context, when the British meat and dairy industry was wrecked a few years ago by BSE, we had to cull large numbers of cows. We accepted that as a necessary means of limiting the spread of a dangerous disease – surely a subject we have become all too familiar with recently. There was resistance form farmers whose livelihoods were under threat, but I don’t recall the same support from animal lovers we’re seeing now.

There’s one crucial difference, of course.

Cows are nowhere near as cure as alpacas.

The parallel with Buckbeak the HippoGriff, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is remarkable. The magical creature is unfairly condemned after being provoked into attacking Draco Malfoy. Harry, Ron and Hermione save him, by setting him free, just a few minutes before the intended execution.

What Old McDonald’s Farm needs is a trio of under-age wizards to save the day.

Lucius Malfoy, who got Buckbeak condemned, was naive when it came to reputation management. I’d be astonished if DEFRA Minister George Justice doesn’t see the PR value in this story, and grant some kind of reprieve for Buckbeak Geronimo.

Come on George, you know you want to. As you said yourself, recently “We are a nation of animal lovers.

It’s just too good an opportunity to miss.


George did indeed delay the final decision. For a bit.

Then Buckbeak, sorry Geronimo, was exterminated.

The post mortem did not find that he had bovine TB.


Have April Fools pranks had their day?

I was planning to write a world-weary rant on the futility and lack of anything remotely funny in April Fools Day pranks.

My first stop was a short whinge about Volkwagen’s pathetic effort this year (2021).

I’m writing this on April 2nd, but a week or so back, I stumbled across a debate on social media about the pros and cons of VW’s forthcoming rebranding in the US. According to reports leaked to the press (Reuters, I think), they were about to rename the brand as Voltswagen of America, as a nod to their new electric car strategy. Volt, geddit?

How we laughed.

Some commentators were getting oddly exercised about this. For me, it was a bit ‘ho hum’. but it’s the sort of meaningless gesturing that big global brands occasionally indulge in, so I didn’t think too much of it.

I later discovered it was an April 1st prank.

Well, let me explain why it doesn’t work:

  1. It wasn’t April 1st, it was some time in March.
  2. It wasn’t remotely funny
  3. How does simply announcing something that’s not true count as a prank?

I despair.

Many years ago, I worked on advertising for Tetley Tea and every years we created a press ad of some kind for April 1st. The deal was that it had to be a reasonable joke, poking fun at ourselves and raising a smile. It was a novelty and people enjoyed it – they told us so in focus groups.

But in the intervening decades, the tradition has become dreary. It’s not a novelty any more, but feels like a chore. I suppose, in a world where no advertiser seems to have anything to say other than an unrelated story, April Fools ads are no less meaningful than the day to day promotional stuff.

I appreciate I am naturally a bit of a curmudgeon in these matters. Most so-called practical jokes leave me cold. People seem to have mistaken extreme wit for simply telling a lie.

Then everything changed.

I came across this offering from those endlessly wise-cracking funsters, the South Australian Police.

It’s everything an April Fools idea should be. Notably, it’s funny.

Come to think of it, this would be worth running regardless of any April Fools nonsense.

SAPOL, we salute you.

Reminded me, very strongly, of the campaign we ran at one of my previous agencies for an STI testing kit. You’ll spot the strong similarity.

This was nothing to do with April Fools. It was just a very funny way to draw attention to the product, which offered a distinct advantage over its competitors. You could test yourself for a sexually transmitted infection, it without everyone knowing about it.


The murky world of online reviews

I used to joke that online reviews were useless, because everything I ever looked at always scored an average 4.6 out of 5. Little did I know, it’s so much worse than that.

A news story broke this week, because it emerged there was a thriving trade in buying and selling Amazon reviews. Businesses were apparently spending large sums to acquire thousands of positive reviews. This does beg some questions. Wouldn’t it be obvious the reviewer was talking about a different product or service than the one seemingly being appraised? Presumably the reviews were also edited so they made sense in their new location. So why not just make them up to start with?

I had previously imagined that most reviews were written by the seller. That’s why they are all 4.6 out of 5.

I had a moment of clarity a couple of years ago, when I tried to post a negative review and discovered the service provider had blocked it. Easy to post a positive one. Very difficult to post a negative one. Hmmm. Smell a rat? I investigated a little and found my experience was not unusual.

So when I say I’m cynical about online reviews, we’re talking confidence levels of close to zero.

The icing on the cake arrived last Christmas. In the weeks approaching the big day, I was surprised to find myself receiving a series of random packages, which I had never ordered. First came some magnetic false eyelashes. Then a week later, I received a magnetic cat toy. Next, arrived a set of bathroom scales which measure body fat. Finally, a pack of rather unattractive underwear. I was baffled, so I did what I usually do in such unprecedented circumstances. I asked my kids. They’re young adults, you see, with extensive experience of online skulduggery, so they know about this sort of thing. “Oh yes, they said, it’s a thing. It’s called brushing” Apparently, sellers send you the product so they can submit a fake review in your name. There are even accounts from people who write the reviews.

As I mentioned, I was already deeply suspicious of reviews, so I don’t feel especially outraged by this – though the implications for identity security are pretty worrying.

What really does make me sit up and say “WTF” is the economics of the thing. How can it make financial sense to give a product away in order to fuel a positive review? What’s the actual value of a review? More than the value of a sale? I don’t think so. There’s clearly something else going on here. Or the world has gone totally bonkers. On the other hand, we live in a world where a cryptocurrency looks like an investment and stock markets reach record highs in the deepest recession we’ve ever seen. So maybe that horse has long since bolted, left the country, made a new life abroad, raised a family and retired to a comfortable stable in the country to see out its old age.

Feeling a little below par

Golf is not allowed at the moment due to the Covid lockdown restrictions.

Which is crazy, because surely golf is the most socially-distanced, Covid-restriction-friendly outdoor pursuit there could be.

I won’t lie to you, it’s making me a bit ratty.

Indeed, you could say I’ve been feeling a bit below par.

How witty, you may say. Please don’t.

Because this expression is always used incorrectly. As every golfer knows – no, scrub that. As everyone knows, below par is good. Above par is bad. So if I’m feeling below par, I’m doing well. If I’m feeling above par, I’m doing badly. Not so difficult really.

I don’t understand why the common usage of this expression has evolved to be so, well, er, wrong. Or, if you’ll indulge me, over par.

And that makes me almost as ratty as not being able to play golf.

“Due to COVID, you are held in a queue”

Is it just me or is this a bit off?

In the early days of the COVID pandemic, it seemed pretty natural that businesses were struggling to maintain their call centres and that customer service might be affected. It became a tedious daily reality to have to listen to recorded messages telling us that “due to COVID social distancing restrictions, we’re working with smaller teams, and you may have to wait longer than usual” etc and so on. I have spent a great many hours this last years, listening to hold music. Even online chat is often unavailable.

Fast forward to February 2021, the pandemic is now in its second year and some customer-facing businesses are still unable to offer a reasonable telephone service. I call NS&I, the increasingly unresponsive, UK Government-backed, savings brand as my supporting evidence, but there are many others.

Seems a bit unreasonable to be using COVID as an excuse for poor customer service after a whole year. That should be enough time to make alternative arrangements. Shouldn’t it?

We know banks want us to go online, cause its cheaper than manning call centres, but it appears they’re using COVID as an excuse to do this by stealth.

Ironically, the best phone-based customer service I have experienced recently has involved two of the much (rightly) maligned rail franchise-holders – Southern Rail and South Western Railways. How very refreshing to talk to a human, and for them to have some kind of ability to address the issue being raised.

Decent service from the railways? Is nothing sacred?

Is Scottish Independence just like Brexit?

This got me thinking.

It’s the latest poll suggesting that Scots are increasingly in favour of breaking away from the UK. It’s causing quite a stooshie. A stramash (see what I did there?).

Who can blame them? If I were a Scot, I suspect I would resent being governed, from Westminster, by an Old Etonian elite. Presumably that’s why the Scottish Nationalist Party has so dominated Scottish politics in recent years.

Even more so, in the light of Scotland’s clear vote to stay in the EU. With independence, they could rejoin.

There’s a deep irony about the way the British Government, comprising, almost exclusively Brexit supporters, argues against Scottish independence. The case for Scottish self-rule is, surely, virtually identical to the arguments for Brexit – as many people pointed out at the time. It all smells of hypocrisy and self-interest.

But, wait a minute.

I supported the case to remain in the EU with a passion. I believe Brexit is the worst UK government policy decision in my lifetime.

Yet I find myself sympathising with those arguing for Scottish independence.

Does that mean I’m as hypocritical as the people I’m criticising? I fear it might.

It certainly shows how the corrosive edifice of ‘identity politics’ can infect our judgement. My dislike for the Westminster government might just be the driving force behind my leaning towards the SNP’s case. That’s a really bad reason for holding an opinion. I should re-evaluate it. At a rational level, I know that. But maybe it’s not that kind of opinion. Not really a rational thing at all. It’s more guttural. That is, after all, how humans form opinions – we know that from everything we have learned about behavioural sciences.

This is profoundly disturbing when we consider some of the directions popular opinion is taking – towards bigotry and intolerance, away from liberalism and kindness. It’s all getting horribly ‘us and them’.

Some emphatic pioneers, of this new world, were those football managers who engineered a ‘siege mentality’ among their players. When Jose Mourinho managed Chelsea to a string of trophy successes, he famously created an atmosphere characterised as ‘us against the world’. It forged a kind of unity and mutual support among his team that was a significant part of their strength. Alex Ferguson did something similar in his successful years in charge of Manchester United.

COMMENT: Jose's on to a loser with his mind games as Mourinho slips back  into old routine | Football | Sport |

Going back further, the Wimbledon team of the 1980s, who over-achieved relative to their talent, perhaps more than any other in history were an even more extreme example. They were known as ‘The Crazy Gang’ and they took this adversarial approach onto the pitch, being also physically intimidating and combative. Their mantra, often cited by manager Joe Kinnear and players like Vinnie Jones and John Fashanu said it all:

“Everybody hates us; we don’t care”.

More evidence for what James O’ Brien has called the ‘footballification of everything’. We no longer care about the merits of an argument, we simply cheer if it’s espoused by our team and boo if it’s espoused by the enemy. Not a good way to write policy, but increasingly the case.

If we can spot this, through self-reflection or insight – like my Brexit / Scottish independence realisation above – there may be hope. Some commentators have started to investigate this. Steven Lacey’s research company, The Outsiders, specialises in seeking to understand the views of the dispossessed and excluded – the kinds of people who brought us Brexit. Author and strategist, Ian Leslie has written about the importance of understanding conflict and disagreement.

If we can get our heads around this – or perhaps, more importantly, our hearts or our guts – all may not be lost. But I’ll also understand if you disagree.

Don’t over hype social listening – it’s useful not revolutionary

The other day, I found myself, yet again, marvelling at the “that’s bleeding obvious, but so true and I wish I had thought of it’ wisdom of marketing professor, Mark Ritson.

He had written an article recommending that the best way to get a top job in marketing was to pretend to buy into vogueish, digital bullshit, rather than correcting your potential employer and giving a more balanced strategic perspective.

“To put it more bluntly: if you are a proper marketer, your brain might answer a recruitment question correctly but you will consequently lose the role to a lesser marketer. So, ignore the technically correct answer and go with the vocationally prudent one instead.”

His premise – that marketers have been swept away by digital tactics, and have lost the plot when it comes to more rigorous strategic thinking – rings very true with me. The expression ‘digital first‘ marketing is the epitome of the tactical tail wagging the strategic dog.

One of the areas of digital hype in Ritson’s firing line is social listening:

“Social listening is a very cool, very unrepresentative real-time barometer of brand sentiment that you should look at but it should never be more than 5% of your insight pool “

This area – sometimes called online anthropology (cool eh?) has long fascinated me. I even attended the BrandWatch annual conference specifically to learn everything about social listening, so I could wow my friends with the most current buzzy techniques. I was disappointed, nothing genuinely compelling here, but concluded that I just didn’t get it. Simply not cool enough to capture the zeitgeist.

Then a couple of ears ago, I was working on a marketing campaign in a therapy are that was new to me – autism. In these situations, the first thing to do is to furiously hoover up every bit of research, medical coverage, editorial and opinion around the therapy area, so I immersed myself in all things autistic.

One research source, commissioned at great expense by the client, jumped out at me – a study which beautifully segmented the audience of autistic kids, teens and their parents. It was packed with insight. It described a spectrum of perspectives ranging (and I’m not remotely doing it justice here) from those who had limited horizons and were largely defined by their ‘condition’ to others who seemed to excel in many ways and could almost be said to treat autism as their ‘super-power‘.

For the purposes of developing an advertising strategy, this was a compelling piece of work. If the ‘super power’ angle was tenable, and if it represented an aspirational, yet realistic proposition, it was a massively fertile creative territory. The agency was salivating at the prospect. A host of exciting storylines rapidly presented themselves – the narrow line between madness and genius, the unsung hero (tortoise) who quietly excels ahead of the flamboyant charlatan (hare), the power of concentration to go beyond what was thought possible etc.

Being a bit of a research nerd, I was interested in the methodology for this segmentation, so I dug a bit deeper. It turned out the segmentation was based on a deep-dive, social listening exercise. What does that mean? It means they ‘scraped’ a large number of conversations happening online, around autism, and set about grouping the attitudes expressed, into segments. Nothing wrong with that – it was incredibly insightful, yielding some fascinating angles.

But there’s a huge assumption here – that the opinions expressed in this ‘scraping’ are in some way representative of the population concerned, in this case autistic kids, teenagers and their parents. A moment’s reflection confirms this is likely the opposite of the case. Online conversations, of the kind elicited by the researchers, almost certainly reflect a sub-set of our population who are atypical. They are by definition high-performing, literate, tech-savvy and opinionated. A brief dive into all the other autism literature tells us that this is very far from typical.

So when Ritson says social listening is “a very cool but very unrepresentative real-time barometer of sentiment” I can absolutely concur.

Unfortunately, we never got to create a campaign about autism as a super-power. It would have been a fantastic creative opportunity. But it would have been based on a tiny, unrepresentative insight based on a small, atypical sub-set of our audience.

Narrow escape or missed opportunity?

Can’t decide, but when it comes to social listening, I don’t feel so bad about ‘not getting it’ any more. Having said all that, it’s a technique that can add something really valuable to the insight armoury, For example, when good tracking study researchers report their findings, they often supplement the survey data on attitudes with concurrent metrics covering online sentiment. It makes perfect sense.

If you don’t believe the hype, this digital revolution can be genuinely helpful.

Nobody will ever ‘do as you say, not as you do’

As Britain goes into another coronavirus lockdown, it’s time to despair, once again, over the authorities’ inability to create single-minded communications.

Advertising 101 – the basic essentials of understanding how to communicate – states we need to create a single minded proposition in order to move people to action. It’s really that simple. As a professional communicator, if you do only one thing, then just get this right.

In the old days people would dress it up with analogies – imagine you are thrown a tennis ball; you catch it but if you are thrown six tennis balls, you won’t catch any. Yes, I know, it’s really rather obvious isn’t it?

Yet we don’t seem to be able to follow this simple rule when it comes to instructions about coronavirus and lockdown restrictions.

Partly it’s because communications is more than just what you say. It’s also how you say it, what you do, how you look and so on. If we say one thing and do another, it creates dissonance and people aren’t sure which message to believe. This is where our leaders have made it incredibly difficult for themselves. In the earliest days of lockdown, back in 2020, the authorities told us to stay at home but the PM’s top advisor, Dominic Cummings, famously travelled across the country, to stay with relatives, recklessly flouting the advice. Worse, when the story emerged, he was not rebuked, disowned or criticised by ministers but defended to the hilt.

At the time, the response was one of outrage – it was one rule for them, another rule for the rest of us. It was the unfairness and elitism that caused most offence. I’m not so worried about that (well, maybe I am, but that’s not my main worry today) but, more by the way this undermined all subsequent government instructions. Various reports and studies in the following months showed that large numbers of people simply stopped believing what they were being told, after ‘l’affiaire Cummings’. This is doubly problematic in a world where trust in our leaders has never been lower, but that’s a bigger question for another day.

After that experience – and the clear evidence of the damage done – it’s surely unthinkable that the government could get it so wrong again. Isn’t it?

Fast forward to January 2021. The state of the pandemic is significantly worse than it was in the Spring of 2020, when Dominic Cummings went rogue. So much so that PM Boris has had to go on National TV to announce a new lockdown.

Let’s evaluate the messages he’s communicating:

Serious tone of voice (no jokes, no latin, no tortured metaphors) – check

Sensible suit, trappings of office, serious backdrop – check.

A single consistent story being told (the new COVID variant has made the situation worse, so we have to impose a new lockdown, we are telling you to stay at home, except for a few essential exceptions) – check

But why does he appear to have spent the night sleeping on the lawn?

And why does he seem to have adopted the manner of a naughty schoolboy who has been compelled to apologise for something he has done, which he doesn’t really regret?

The precise instructions were as follows – “You must stay at home. You may only leave home for certain reasons permitted in law, such as to shop for essentials, to work if you absolutely cannot work from home, to exercise, to seek medical assistance or to escape domestic abuse…..If you do leave home for one of these reasons, you should stay local – unless it is necessary to go further, for example to go to work. 
Stay local means remaining in the village, town, or part of the city where you live.

19 Fairfield Drive enough.

So what are we to conclude when PM Boris was spotted by the London Evening Standard, a couple of days later, cycling in the Olympic Park, some seven and a half miles away from his home in Downing Street?

He would have had to cycle for at least three quarters of an hour and cross several London boroughs to get there – hardly staying in the same part of the city where he lives, one would think.

Official response has been that Boris didn’t break any rules – which suggests the announcement was at best, confusing, at worst, absolute nonsense. Or they’re lying.

Once again, we are likely to infer that either the PM doesn’t actually believe what he told us a few days earlier so the situation is not that serious after all – we can all ignore the rules – or that the rules only apply to us plebs, while the ruling classes can simply ignore the restrictions. This may become known as ‘doing a Dominic’.

Whichever interpretation you take, it leaves the government’s communications in tatters. On the same day as Boris’ misdemeanour was reported, the Metropolitan police chief was doing the rounds of media outlets telling us how enforcement would be stepped up to ensure compliance with the lockdown rules.

You couldn’t make it up.

I’d love to know what Cressida Dick was saying in private, once her serious “do what the government tells you” face was dropped.

There’s an added irony here, for those of us who once worked in government communications. Until a few years ago, there was a government agency, known as the Central Office of Information (COI), which served as a centre for excellence, in exactly these kinds of questions. It masterminded government campaigns to achieve the policy goals of the day, using the best practices from advertising, PR, design and all the other related disciplines. Above all, it understood that communication is about understanding the response we are looking to evoke, rather than the messages we are trying to project. It’s about designing the totality of peoples’ experience with a message and the inferences they will draw. Saying one thing and doing the opposite will always be flawed.

COI would regularly sweep the board in the awards for communications effectiveness. Being accountable for spending public money, it was under constant scrutiny and hugely focused on producing campaigns which delivered results. The COI was disbanded by David Cameron’s government in 2011, largely because it was deemed to be too ‘political’ in an era when government interventions in peoples’ lives was seen to be best avoided. That was the political approach that brought us austerity in the face of recession; a policy which now looks ridiculous, bordering on the cruel.

How things have changed.

How desperately we need the COI today.

The bare necessities of life

Ahh yes.

I was just watching the modern version of Jungle Book the other day (yes, I know, but it’s been a tough few months, what with the pandemic and all). It raised a few questions.

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The UK’s COVID-19 regulations (January 2021 version) define a list of ‘businesses providing essential goods and services’ which can remain open during lockdown. That’s very sensible, but the selection of what constitutes an ‘essential’ service is interesting.

This list represents what our leaders reckon are the bare necessities of life.

It includes the obvious essentials – food shops, banks, post offices, pharmacies and the like.

Then there are the inevitable anomalies.

Place of worship are open, but gyms have to close. The body representing gyms has made a strong case that they are not a significant source of COVID transmission, to no avail. But then bosses of gyms don’t sit in the House of Lords.

Botanical gardens are open, but not golf courses. Despite the fact golf is surely the perfect COVID-friendly activity with minimal risk, as long as the catering side is restricted. Two people walk in the outdoors, naturally socially distanced, due to the fact one is typically in the fairway, the other in the deep rough or the trees (that’ll be me).

Bafflingly, the fancy sweet shop in my High street remains open. I know. Me neither.

Other venues deemed essential include garden centres (whose demographic are at most serious risk of hospitalisation and death) DIY supplies, animal groomers (don’t get me started) and, for some reason W. H. Smith, which doesn’t seem to fit in any of these categories. Digression – I’m developing a theory that W. H. Smith should somehow engineer the word ‘British’ into its brand name, because it represents part of the fabric of UK culture, like BP, BT or British Gas.

Of course, there’s a case to be made for any or all of these goods and services being a priority. Especially if that’s your business, probably under extreme financial pressure. But in the present climate, where it’s clear there’s been plenty of skulduggery and awarding of lucrative contracts to friends and family, it’s hard to have faith in the decisions, nor in the rationale behind them. It seems likely the organisations, with the lobbyists closest to the centre, got what they wanted, and others didn’t.

At a less conspiratorial level, I was reminded of studies of recession behaviour that became topical in the 1990s economic downturn. Previously, economists had had a pretty mundane definition of what were ‘luxuries’ and what were ‘necessities’. But empirical studies, around this time, began to show that some things previously considered luxuries had become ‘sanity’ costs – and therefore necessities. So, no matter how poor people felt, they would resist giving them up. For some, the gym or swimming pool was now very much a necessity – as much for mental health as for fitness. Ditto the hairdresser for some groups. A friend recently explained she couldn’t survive without the fancy stationer, Paperchase.

This is surely the thinking behind keeping elite sport going, despite continuous disruption to squads that will make the season’s final league placings a bit arbitrary. Several Premier League football fixtures, as well as high profile rugby and cricket matches, have been cancelled because one team literally ran out of players, due to the pandemic. But, for football fans, at a time of national crisis and economic meltdown, following your team may be the only thing that keeps you going.

I imagine, if you’re a vegan, then plenty of foodstuffs deemed luxuries by others, are absolutely essential. Or if your culture makes other peoples’ ‘exotic’ foods your daily staples.

So the bare necessities of life are very much a moveable feast.

In a sane world, we would have some analysis of what activities represent the greatest and least threat of COVID infection. The activities representing the least threat would stay open and those with greater threat would close, unless it was absolutely critical – like food shops or pharmacies. This isn’t happening. In fact, you could argue the opposite is happening, with large scale lobbying to keep hospitality venues open, even when it seems likely that these are relatively high risk. Schools and colleges are surely a top breeding ground for the virus – that’s based on my own anecdotal experiences, in the absence of any reliable data. But the authorities were at huge pains to keep education open even in the face of a body of opinion pointing out, months ago, it would put more people at risk.

So much for ‘following the science‘.

Unfortunately, the way Government now works, our definition of the bare necessities of life is more likely to be influenced by businesses, lobbying for their economic interests, than anything connected with the task at hand.