From Stay at Home, Stay Alert and back to Stay at Home: How government's lockdown messaging changed over the last year

Credit: PA

By ITV News Digital Journalist Jocelyn Evans

Over the past year we've seen various politicians stand behind the Downing Street lectern to update us on the UK's handling of the Covid pandemic.

It's not just the politicians behind that lectern that have changed over the last 12 months: the messages, colour scheme, and slogans have all been shifting since March 2020.

How has the government's messaging changed since the first lockdown, and how effective has it been in changing the British public's behaviour during the pandemic?

March 2020

Before heading in to the first national lockdown, Downing Street had already begun the Covid-19 briefings that have become a familiar feature on our screens.

In mid-March 2020 the Downing Street briefings still had an audience of journalists. Credit: PA

It started out with a white and blue colour scheme, that of the NHS brand, directing the public to the health service's coronavirus webpage for all the latest information and guidance - which at the time focussed on hand washing.

Within two weeks, as the scale of the crisis became apparent, that branding had a dramatic shakeup and the first of the three point slogans appeared.

The directive was: "Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives" in yellow, blue, and red respectively.

Boris Johnson delivers a Covid briefing on 25 March 2020. Credit: PA

The following day, another rebranding.

The same message but in a more severe colour scheme - red, yellow and black.

The message was getting clearer - and more serious, but was never going to be suitable, enough even from the very beginning, according to Sally Dibb, Professor of Marketing and Society at Coventry University.

The message was rebranded the following day using a red, yellow and black colour scheme. Credit: PA

"This was a communications problem and the government would do really well to follow the basic rules that marketing people and branding people use when they’re trying to convey messages and branding to the public," Prof Dibb says.

"Messaging needs to be simple, consistent, targeted, and it needs to deliver on what it’s promised."

At this early point, the message seemed to be hitting home.

An Ipsos MORI survey from 27 March found 90% of people believed the government communications on what to do in response to coronavirus had been "clear", half felt it had been "very clear".

April 2020

On April 5 Boris Johnson was hospitalised with Covid - a moment many saw as the turning point in the government's response to the crisis.

The messaging on the pandemic stayed the same but branding became bolder - a heavier font, and clearer colouring.

"Some odd things went on with colour," Prof Dibb says. "I think the idea was it was initially a bit traffic light-like and they wanted to move away from that."

With the PM in hospital with Covid, we saw a range of politicians behind the latest branding. Credit: PA

As the UK grew used to life in lockdown, there were fears the Easter holiday would prompt rule breaking as families longed to meet to mark the occasion.

Bookending the Easter weekend, we saw another, temporary, message change: "Stay home this Easter".

A slight change, but the message remained to "stay home".

For the Easter weekend a new message - Stay Home. Credit: PA

May 2020

As the country moved into almost two months of total lockdown, the 10 May saw Boris Johnson make his first statement on a "road map for reopening society".

For the first time, a new message appeared.

The PM told the country: "We must stay alert. We must continue to control the virus and save lives."

In an address to the nation on 10 May, Mr Johnson proposed a way out of lockdown using an alert system. Credit: PA

The following day at the Downing Street briefing, the branding reflected that change in emphasis.

A new colour scheme of green, yellow and black - and a new message: "Stay alert, control the virus, save lives."

Prof Dibb described this move as "completely bizarre".

"Things started with idea of NHS being at the heart of it. That had lots of traction because everybody loves the NHS.

"It was completely bizarre when it went off in the other direction and we lost the NHS direction. So we have this rather strange 'stay alert' - the public was confused about that. Stay alert isn’t an action."

The new 'stay alert' message was the first time the UK nations went their separate ways on branding. Credit: PA

Messaging should have, according to Prof Dibb, be built around a "central idea [...] so even if people forget what the subsequent messaging is, they remember the central idea."

She cites New Zealand, praised for its handling of the crisis, as an example. Throughout the pandemic, branding in the country has centred around a single theme: "United against Covid-19".

"Social cohesion is almost always the best way to go," says Prof Dibb.

"It’s very powerful because it means that people aren’t just thinking about them, they’re thinking about others that they know and they love.

Every piece of New Zealand Covid messaging follows the red, black, yellow colour scheme. Credit:

Though we have seen an increased sense of community in the UK through the pandemic, Prof Dibb says the message needed to instil more of a sense of shared responsibility.

"Basing something around a theme that was much more about people working together to fight what was happening would definitely have been the most powerful way to go.

"The advantage of that is that the public then feel they own it. Instead what's happened in the UK is it’s all been about the government telling the public what to do.

In England, Prof Dibb says, the shift from a straightforward action, "stay at home," to a state of being, "stay alert", muddied that simple, central idea.

The scientists at Independent SAGE agree.

A group of experts who have provided independent scientific advice to the UK government during the crisis, their report into Number 10's Covid messaging is equally disparaging of this change.

The 'stay alert' message displayed on Bournemouth Pier in May 2020. Credit: PA

"The government’s own ministers were unable to clearly articulate what 'Stay Alert' meant in behavioural terms," independent SAGE says."The new message was built for imprecision. 'Alert' is a cognitive state; it is subjective, open to interpretation, imprecise".

This opinion was reflected in another survey that asked Britons how clear the Covid messaging had been.

Carried out between 15-18 May 2020, Ipsos MORI found a fall in the number of people happy with the clarity of the government’s communications.

Now just over half (56%) believed messaging about what to do in response to lockdown was clear - down 34 points from that 90% figure in March.

This moment was also the first time the UK nations went their own separate ways on Covid messaging, something Prof Dibb says caused "additional confusion".

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Scotland would not be adopting "the PM’s new slogan" and that she would continue to use the "stay home" message - Northern Ireland and Wales followed suit.

The change in message became a point of satire for the country's comedians.

Matt Lucas' impression of the PM quickly went viral: "Don't go to work, go to work. Stay indoors, if you can work from home, go to work. Go outside, don't go outside! And then we will or won't... something or other."

Less than two months in to the pandemic, the messaging on what the public should be doing was changing.

This was, Prof Dibb says, a mistake: "People need to know what it is that they’re being asked to do."

By the end of May, the government had launched its new Test and Trace system, something health secretary Matt Hancock called an "incredibly important milestone".

On 27 May the government launched its Test and Trace programme - cue new branding. Credit: PA

To date, the system is still under intense scrutiny and has been the focus of damning criticism.

The government says messaging and campaigns played a key role in the delivery and take up of schemes like Test and Trace.

To mark its launch at Downing Street's May 27 briefing, a fresh blue and white colour scheme was brought in alongside the new message: "NHS Test and Trace".

September 2020

Following a summer of relative normality compared to the earlier months of the pandemic, the second wave of infections began to build and the government was urged to once again take action to control the virus.

A new message came into force at the beginning of September: "Hands Face Space", as well as new restrictions - the rule of six.

The campaign urged people to ensure they were washing their hands, using a mask when needed and maintaining social distancing.

At the end of September, the PM returned to the podium with another new Covid message. Credit: PA

The campaign said these were the three most effective ways the public could contain the spread of the virus.

Prof Dibb says this was one of the simplest messages used, with a clear directive.

"There have been some simple messages along the way, like "hands, face, space" and people know what that means," she says.

"But it sits among a whole bunch of other messaging and guidance that is much more opaque."

As the regularity of Downing Street briefings began to increase through the Autumn, the podium was adorned with the new message and a return to the NHS-themed blue and white colour palette.

At the Downing Street briefing on December 19, Christmas was all but cancelled as a new strain of the virus worried officials. Credit: PA

We saw this message remain throughout October and November as cases crept up and England went into a new three-tier lockdown system.

It was this same message that appeared in the December 19 briefing, which saw the introduction of Tier 4 for London and the South East - all but cancelling "smaller, safer Christmas" the PM had pushed for earlier in the month.

January 2021

The start of the New Year brought the start of another national lockdown for England, announced by Mr Johnson in another televised address to the nation.

The following day at the Downing Street Covid briefing, we saw the return of the message from the early days of the first lockdown: "Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives".

Over the space of just ten months, we had come full circle.

The return of the 'stay home, protect the NHS, save lives' message we last saw in March 2020. Credit: PA

March 2021

As part of Boris Johnson's roadmap out of lockdown, the 'stay at home' order in England will end on March 29. On that day, we're likely to see 'stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives' replaced with a new message.

With the prime minister calling the roadmap a "one way road to freedom", he - and the public - will be hoping that the 'stay at home' message is one that will never have to be used again.

In response to our report, Downing Street said its messaging was "continuously reviewed" and guidance was updated "in light of emerging information and in line with the latest scientific advice and data."

In a statement to ITV News, a government spokesperson said: "Throughout the Covid-19 Pandemic we have set out clear, consistent and targeted instructions to the public about what people need to do to prevent the spread of the disease and stay safe."We have been clear that our priority is to protect the NHS and save lives."Our public information campaigns have reached an estimated 95% of adults an average of 17 times, and data shows that our multi-channel communications approach is having a significant impact on people's behaviour."

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