Simon Rushton By: Simon Rushton
Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations
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10 May 2020 : A public communication disaster

In a previous diary entry, written while Boris Johnson was in Intensive Care, I (mildly) regretted an earlier post in which I had referred to his reputation for laziness and incompetence. Ever since his recovery, I have regretted my regret. Tonight’s speech, in which Johnson supposedly set out the new lockdown rules for the UK, has once again shown the problems that arise from his unique blend of laziness and incompetence.

Let’s start with the laziness: It was well-known that Johnson wanted to make his speech directly to the British people at the weekend rather than in Parliament, to avoid the awkwardness of having to answer challenging questions on it. Although the Speaker of the House of Commons criticised that decision, he was powerless to stop it. 

It is also well-known that the PM doesn’t like to work on Sundays, even during a national crisis. So his speech for this evening was actually pre-recorded yesterday – meaning it couldn't be changed to take into account the ridicule and disbelief that met his new slogan, trailed in this morning’s newspapers (more of which below). 

So, on to the incompetence: Journalists had been briefed by government sources last Wednesday that the lockdown would be substantially lifted in the speech today. Thursday’s newspapers almost all ran with the story, with front pages reading:


‘First steps to freedom from Monday’ (Daily Express)

‘Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons’ (Daily Mail)

‘Happy Monday: Lockdown Joy Next Week’ (The Sun)


By Saturday, it was becoming clear that this wasn’t what the government was planning to announce at all. Sunday’s morning papers reported the basic outlines of the message that would be  given by Johnson in his recorded message at the end of the day. They also previewed his new slogan. Replacing the old slogan:






Would be the new, and utterly bewildering, one:






The leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were quick to distance themselves from this incomprehensible nonsense, choosing instead to keep the previous slogan and asking the UK government not to publicise the new one in their countries.

But Johnson’s speech was already in the can, so out it went, as planned, at 7pm – although now (without any explicit recognition of this fact) applying to England alone. A hastily written explanation of ‘BE ALERT’ was tweeted out, published (to much hilarity) in the form of a screenshot from the iPhone ‘Notes’ app. It didn’t make Johnson’s new catchphrase any more comprehensible.

So what did Johnson have to say to the nation in his address? Frankly, I’m not too sure. Immediately after it finished, a friend texted to ask whether the announcement meant that he should go to work tomorrow morning. Here is my reply which reflected (to the extent that I could understand it) what Johnson had told English workers. I reproduce it here in the hope that it may be of assistance to others:


If you cannot work from home, you are strongly encouraged to go to work tomorrow, if possible. More guidance will be released tomorrow (or the next day) explaining in more detail what ‘possible’ means. 

You should travel to work without leaving the house where feasible, and certainly without using public transport, unless you absolutely need to. If possible, cycle or walk - whilst doing your best to respect social distancing, if you can. 

More details will be released later this week on the safety measures that employers should put in place for those who return to work tomorrow.

Heavier fines have been introduced for people who do not follow this clear guidance.

If you contract COVID-19, it will be your own fault for not having followed this clear guidance.

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