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"Stay Home, Save Lives" wasn't a good slogan
On 20 March, 2020, the British government unveiled its new public health message to the nation: “Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives”. The slogan had apparently been coined the night before on a conference between the PM and several PR gurus. These included Lee Cain, his director of communications; Isaac Levido, who ran the Tories’ general election campaign; and Ben Guerin, a 25 year old social media strategist. According to The Telegraph:
The group agreed that there had to be a simple, sharp message that all Government communications could get behind … The message was pushed relentlessly by Mr Johnson the following Monday when he addressed the nation about the lockdown … Mr Cain, Mr Levido and Mr Guerin made more tweaks. The messaging on the lectern was soon bordered by red and yellow tape, as if to signify an emergency
Not before long, many people added the slogan to their social media bios. As I recall, #StayHomeSaveLives was soon trending on Twitter.
So, what are we to make of this slogan? “Simple and effective,” you might say. And while it’s certainly simple, I’m not sure how effective it was. In hindsight, it may have even been counterproductive.
How so? Well, it reinforced what is arguably the single biggest fallacy of the pandemic – the idea that the virus threatens everyone. We’ve known the early months of 2020 that the virus poses little risk to those who are young and healthy. Yet the literal implication of “Stay Home, Save Lives” is that, by leaving your house and exposing yourself to the virus, you may end up killing people.
Indeed, it implies that a healthy 20 year old who hunkers down in his parents’ basement is acting responsibly; where as one who goes out, gets infected and acquires natural immunity is a reckless menace to society. But I’d argue: it’s the one who goes out and acquires natural immunity that’s acting responsibly.
In the long-run, the only thing that’s going to stop the virus spreading is enough people having natural immunity. Evidence indicates natural immunity protects much better against infection than the vaccines. And because of the steep age-gradient in Covid mortality, we want the people who acquire natural immunity to be young and healthy, rather than old and frail.
You might argue: “It’s all very well to say this now, but it wasn’t obvious at the start of the pandemic.” Well, it may not have been obvious to everyone, but it was obvious to some scientists – like Sunetra Gupta, Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, who wrote the Great Barrington Declaration. (Note: I include myself among those to whom it was initially not obvious.)
Another person who immediately saw the implications of natural immunity and the age-gradient in Covid mortality was the economist Robin Hanson. He suggested encouraging healthy young people to become infected by means of variolation (exposure at low viral loads). This would allow us to build up population immunity, while minimising overall mortality. To quote Hanson:
Hero Hotels welcome sufficiently young and healthy volunteers … A cohort enters together, and is briefly isolated individually for as long as it takes to verify that they’ve been infected with a very small dose of the virus … Once they have recovered, they are more surely available to work near the pandemic peak, and can more easily risk social contact at work.
Dubbing his proposal “Hero Hotels”, Hanson correctly recognised that those who voluntarily acquired immunity in the early stages of the pandemic deserved some kind of social acclaim. After all, they were doing their fellow citizens a favour by helping to end the pandemic slightly sooner than otherwise.
Ironically, the British government’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” slogan had the exact opposite effect. On Twitter, it led to members of the “laptop class” (journalists, academics and others) sanctimoniously patting themselves on the back for doing nothing more than sitting at home on their sofas all day. I mean, they’d been told by the government they were literally “saving lives”, so why shouldn’t they get a little glory?
In fact, it was worse than that. Not only were many young and reasonably healthy people taking credit for doing nothing. They were taking credit for shifting the burden of immunity onto other people, namely the “essential workers” who were still leaving home every day to keep the economy going. Those boiler repairs, Amazon packages and takeaway meals didn’t come from nowhere! They had to be brought about by people – working-class men, for the most part.
Now, some “essential workers” were young and healthy themselves, so it made sense for them to keep working. However, many were not. And in fact, the ONS found that age-standardised Covid death rates during the first wave were highest in “elementary occupations”, which make up the unskilled working class. By contrast, death rates were lowest in “professional occupations” – among the people patting themselves on the back for staying home and saving lives.
This absurdity was captured brilliantly by the Marxist art critic J.J. Charlesworth, who quipped, “There was never any lockdown. There was just middle-class people hiding while working-class people brought them things.”
So what would a better slogan have looked like? Well, it’s very difficult to come up with a simple, pithy one that also makes sense from a public health standpoint. How about: “Stay at home if you’re old. Keep going out if you’re young and healthy. If you do get Covid symptoms, stay at home until they’re gone. Take care visiting elderly friends and relatives.” It isn’t very memorable, is it? Maybe I’m not cut out to be a communications “strategist”.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the government’s slogan wasn’t really up to scratch: it’s originators were all PR gurus, not public health scientists. On the other hand, most of the the scientists advising the government probably believed in the same basic message. (Recall that Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance stopped being in favour of focused protection in mid March, when “The Science” flipped.)
If Boris had left the messaging to the academics, we’d have likely ended up with something similar, just more clunky: “Refrain from vacating your places of residence. Safeguard Britain’s health provision system. Diminish the national mortality rate.”
No. 10’s fundamental error may have been treating the pandemic like an election campaign. After his roaring successes with Brexit and the general election, I guess Boris thought, “Why not use the same winning formula to trounce Covid?”
What I assume an election campaign calls for is simple, bold slogans that people can easily remember. And you make absolutely sure to stay on message. A pandemic, on the other hand, requires slightly more nuance. It isn’t something that you “win”. And you really ought to change your messaging as new evidence comes in. So I’m not sure that seven-word slogans are the right approach.
Image: Stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives, Department of Health and Social Care
The Daily Sceptic
I’ve written four more posts since last time. The first notes that the latest mortality figures from England suggest vaccine effectiveness has been overestimated. The second summarises two recent surveys showing that U.S. Democrats can’t let Covid go. The third notes that Sweden has been ranked third out of 23 rich countries for economic performance during the pandemic. The fourth summarises a study finding that obese people who lost weight after gastric bypass surgery got less severe Covid.
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