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They think it's all over: Has recent government messaging given people reason to let loose?

lone walking and people gathering on beach
In recent weeks people in England have been flocking to the beach, illegally camping and having street parties. With the pubs opening again this weekend, the wild abandon is sure to increase. But the UK is far from free of the Corona virus. So why are taking the risk of COVID-19 less seriously now? Dr Kieran File from the University of Warwick's Department of Linguistics thinks some government messaging could be lulling us into a false sense of security.

There has been some evidence pockets of the British public are taking the threat of Coronavirus less seriously recently. Since the government’s last briefing on the 23 June, a number of street parties have been broken up around the country, large numbers of people have headed to the country's beaches, and people have been caught breaking lockdown rules by wild camping in the Lake District. Behaviour of this kind has been reported in the media during the more stringent periods of lockdown, but not on the scale we have witnessed in recent days.

So, how might we explain this lessening of the public’s commitment to the cause? Could it be that people have grown too weary of the restrictions on their liberties? Are people simply bringing forward the new promised easing of restrictions due on the 4 July? Is the hot weather to be blamed? Perhaps the good news and signs of progress from other countries in Europe – those deemed to be ahead of us in the pandemic – has also given us cause to relax and start to reorganise our social lives.

Perhaps. Or, does it have something to do with the government’s recent messaging on the pandemic? Maybe the public has taken its cue to restart social life from the tone of messages issued by the government.

There has been some recent criticism of the government’s messaging on Coronavirus along these lines. The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, has said that he was concerned with the United Kingdom's messaging over Coronavirus, suggesting that the messaging in Wales has been very different. While in Wales the message has been more “sober”, emphasising the fact that the virus “has not gone away”, in the United Kingdom the message has been “more that it’s all over and you can go back to doing everything as you did before”.

The explicit and implicit readings of the message

Boris Johnson has certainly not come out and said this explicitly or directly. He has even said explicitly that the virus has not been beaten and that it is ready to “take advantage of our carelessness”.

So, where have the impressions garnered by Mark Drakeford come from? Has anything in the government’s messaging given this impression more implicitly? And, if we analyse the linguistic content, can we locate anything in government announcements or briefings that may have signalled to the public that it’s time to head back to the beach?

Linguists relish puzzles of this kind, as they provide an opportunity to shine a light on how language makes meaning 'implicitly' –or below the surface of the words uttered. Despite explicit references to the battle not being over, there were communicative structures and choices in the Prime Minister’s final government briefing on the 23 June that may have given weary or bored members of the public reason to believe Coronavirus was under control enough for them to loosen their own lockdowns.

Ordering of elements of the message

"As we give back people more control over their lives, we will ask them to follow guidance on limiting their social contact, rather than forcing them to do so through legislation. And this obviously requires everyone to act responsibly which I have no doubt they will do. It will still be possible for the police to break up large and irresponsible gatherings but neither the police themselves nor the public that they serve want virtually every aspect of our behaviour to be subject to the criminal law."

The words of a language are not the only structures that contribute to the meanings we take away from an interaction or speech. The ordering of clauses or propositions can contribute significantly, too. Conjunctions like and, but and so, along with other grammatical elements that join clauses together into complex messages, are strategic devices speakers draw upon to position propositions into meaningful relationships with each other. The word ‘but’ is a common resource that speakers use to join propositions and it is one that frequently creates the meaning that the proposition preceding the ‘but’ is less important than the one following it.

The ordering of the propositions by the Prime Minister in the extract above, particularly the second example, construe the police’s authority to break up large and irresponsible gatherings as secondary in importance to the message that the police and the criminal justice system does not want to monitor and legislate on every aspect of our behaviour. The choice to order elements in this way may reflect meanings at a wider ideological level of a government that trusts its citizens to be able to do the right thing, a message that will likely strike a chord with many, as opposed to legislating them to follow orders – a less palatable prospect for a free society.

However, for some readers, these ordering moves could create the impression of a disempowered police force and criminal justice system that no longer has the authority or the desire to enforce the lockdown. Alternatively, it may create the meaning that the government is no longer interested in authorising such monitoring. Such a message, if arrived at, could encourage people to push the boundaries.

A real test for the meaning of such clause complexes is to switch the order of the elements and see whether the meaning construed remains the same. Frequently, switching the order of the elements can create a considerably different meaning.

Lexical choices: asking, not telling

In the extract above, there are other structures used by the Prime Minister that work to construe his messages more as requests than directives, moves that have a significant impact on the tone and the Prime Minister’s views on leadership in this pandemic.

While the Prime Minister paints the government as powerful, in that it is now giving people back more control and agency over their own lives, this power difference is immediately redressed by the Prime Minister as he asks the public to follow the guidelines instead of requiring them to.

Asking in a crisis leadership speech like this one, and when compared to choices like telling or ordering, creates the impression that telling is not or no longer necessary, perhaps because the situation is under control. Otherwise, why wouldn’t we be being told what to do, as we have been in the past?

Use of the past tense

"We’re only able to make these changes because we have persevered together and stuck to our path. We had five tests and we met them. We had a plan and we stuck to it. The government has asked a huge amount of all of you and you’ve met that challenge the people of this country met that challenge with good humour and common sense."

Our tense systems also shapes the meanings of our propositions by helping to weave meanings of time into our messages. The past tense was frequently drawn on during this and other government briefings, as we might expect considering these briefs were used as opportunities for a government minister to outline the events of the previous 24-hour period.

However, when we see the past tense used to construe messages about the status of the government’s five tests and its plans as having been met, the public could be forgiven for thinking the worst of this pandemic is over and the shackles can now come off. The Prime Minister’s overall goal of the above section of his speech is perhaps to highlight the progress that has been made. However, these assessments may also create, for some listeners, the impression that the fight against Covid-19 is effectively over with the tests having been met.

The fact that these past simple tense constructions were also given in what was the last of the government’s official daily Coronavirus briefings, may have further contributed to interpretations of this kind. With the knowledge of it being the final briefing, coupled with the Prime Minister’s use of past tense, viewers may be forgiven for taking home the message that the virus was under control.


2 July 2020


Dr Kieran FileKieran File is Assistant Professor in the Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick. His research explores how professional athletes, coaches and managers use language when engaged in team and media communication.

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