Eva Hilberg By: Eva Hilberg
Post-Doctoral Fellow
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10 Sep 2020 : Mixed Messages

This week, the UK government has announced that it is relaunching its public health slogan to advise citizens on safe behaviour during the pandemic. The re-revealed central message is ‘Hands. Face. Space.’ This follows on from ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ and the much more conflicted ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives.’ Apparently everyone is now no longer so concerned with saving lives … and thankfully has given up on trying to contain a virus by staying vaguely alert. That last message always made me think of the incessant announcements at airports that suspicious objects will be taken away and destroyed… are we to imagine viruses sitting abandoned somewhere, like old suitcases, awaiting our detection and eventual removal? If only it were as easy as that.

‘Hands. Face. Space.’ was originally unveiled at the end of July, but ran into competition with the chancellor’s (much catchier) ‘Eat out to help out’ message (see report here). It also apparently draws inspiration from the Catalan’s government’s ‘Distància, mans, mascareta’, or ‘Distance, hands, mask’. For some reason, the UK version has replaced mask with face, which turns the message into a slightly more cryptic affair. ‘Mask’ is clear – put on your mask! – whereas face is a lot less so – put on your face? Of course, it means ‘do not touch your face’, but this wordier directive would break the tripartite rhythm of the government’s messaging. It also rhymes, moving the whole affair to the slightly more treacherous terrain of poetry, where clear meaning is always in the process of disaggregation, effectively unsettling itself. The openness of ‘space’ – as opposed to the more specific notion of distance - invites immediate speculation of what should be filling this emptiness, this absence of things that can only be filled with precision. Similarly, the sequence of ‘Hands. Face.’ does not invite confidence but rather makes you think of burrowing your head in your hands, or – even worse – a face palm 🤦 It also resonates with another string of seemingly disconnected words that has recently made the rounds: ‘Person, woman, man, camera, TV’. This message was also full of accidental content, belying its simple words. 

Prepare for seeing ‘Hands. Face. Space.’ emblazoned on every lectern and background that the UK prime minister will stand near for the foreseeable future. But do these words matter beyond a few funny connotations and accidental symmetries? Well, there are a few basic rules for public health messaging, which ultimately is the most direct way of communication between government and population in times of public emergency. Instructions such as ‘Keep calm and carry on’ have been so successful that they (by now) have given rise to a cottage industry of sorts. ‘Hands. Face. Space.’ is not quite in the same league. As ex-CDC Director Tom Frieden points out, there are some ‘fundamental principles of communication on health emergencies: Be first. Be right. Be credible. Be empathetic. Share practical ways people can protect themselves and their families.’ (via Twitter) These principles are widely known, and key in communication. 

Looking at these principles, the government is clearly neither first nor particularly credible (this ship sailed from the Rose Garden a while ago). The same goes for being empathetic. Being right is more of a grey area, as it is hard to argue with something as basic as washing your hands and giving others space. The practical dimension of these simple rules is however where this message comes unstuck in very concrete ways – how is one, for example, supposed to give space to each other on crammed public transport as the nation is heading back to work on the advice of government? There are still no concrete answers to people’s everyday worries, and that is the real failing of this government and its slogans.

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