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How Boris Johnson’s ‘Stay Alert’ Message Unravelled In 24 Calamitous Hours

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On Monday the government published a timely, helpful and consistent document providing clear details of all the points Boris Johnson had set out the day before about how the coronavirus lockdown was to be lifted.

Only joking. It was a disaster beset by multiple U-turns, car crash interviews and government ministers appearing to have little idea what the government was actually trying to say.

All in just 24 hours. Here’s how it unfolded.

The qualm before the storm

Setting the tone nicely for what was to come, the weekend got off to a rocky start for the government after a preview of the new, catchy, slogan to replace the “stay at home” advisory was mocked by… well, pretty much everyone.

Perfectly encapsulating just how confusing the new messaging was, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon kicked off what would be a series of frankly shady press briefings by asking the PM outright not to display it in Scotland.

For good measure and echoing many on social media, she added: “I don’t know what ‘stay alert’ means.”

‘We shall quarantine them on the beaches’ 

The beauty of a pre-recorded speech is that you can really take your time and get it absolutely nailed, so it was somewhat bewildering that at 7pm on Sunday the PM delivered one in which he managed to announce a series of measures that would be redundant to varying extents by the very next day.

And they weren’t minor announcements – one particularly drastic measure unimaginable just two months ago was the quarantine of “people coming into this country by air”.

Turns out he also meant by sea, but we’ll come to that and all the other slightly confusing matters in a bit. In the meantime and for a reasonably accurate summary of what was said, here’s Matt Lucas.

A picture is worth a thousand words (unless it’s on a government powerpoint presentation)

In amongst Johnson’s speech were a series of slides designed, one assumes, to really hammer home his message.

Unfortunately, a nation of Nando’s-deprived Brits on lockdown, the odd actual mathematician and one Twitter user with exceptional animation skills quickly made clear they weren’t performing quite as intended.

Exhausted, the nation went to sleep. Well, some of them.

Blue Monday

Monday morning saw Boris Johnson’s foot soldiers step out to present a united front and get behind their leader’s “Stay Alert” message. Except none of them seemed particularly alert as to what we were supposed to be alert about.

First into the grinder was Andrew Bridgen who was asked a simple enough question by Piers Morgan: “My two sons who I haven’t seen in 10 weeks – can I go and see them today and maintain two metres’ distance? Yes or no?”

Bridgen replied in the affirmative which, given it was a 50/50 shot even for someone never exposed to the written word, television or radio, never mind a Conservative MP, was a colossal balls-up.

Morgan pointed out the response was “completely against the new rules” set out by the PM and then launched into what was one of the most intense dressing downs of a politician in recent times.

Now is the time. Only it’s not now, not yet

Meanwhile in the real world, hundreds of people were acting upon the words of their elected leader by going to work, having been told by the PM on Sunday evening that those who cannot work from home should be return “now”.

Only it turns out “now” didn’t actually mean “now”, it meant “on Wednesday please” which is about as wide an interpretation of an established word as you can get.

Ahead of Johnson’s announcement, the government had said Sunday’s speech would include information that Brits would use to make changes to their lives from the next day.

But speaking to BBC Radio 4′s Today programme this morning, foreign secretary Dominic Raab appeared to change course, saying the changes to the advice on who should go to work “will take effect from Wednesday”.

There was no mention of this by Johnson on Sunday.

The parents in the park paradox

Not content with sowing confusion about work, Raab was also attempting to clarify if we could meet up with our parents in a park or if we had to choose which one was our favourite.

Even worse, if that parent wanted to have a kickabout or nail you at tennis, no one could agree if this was perfectly fine or liable to have you both set upon by a police doberman. 

Speaking to Victoria Derbyshire, Raab said you could…

Which was slightly different from what he’d just told the BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, where he said people would be able to meet two parents at the same time in a park “if there’s two metres apart”.

And so it was that before midday had even struck, the government had to clarify that people would only be allowed to meet one other person in a park. And they must obey social distancing guidelines. And only from Wednesday. And if you wanted to play sport with them, you’d have to wait to until 2pm to find out, because the government just didn’t have a clue.

Which all raises the obvious question…

In a sign of just how mad things were getting, even the bastion of light entertainment and unflappable reasonableness Phillip Schofield was getting worked up.

Phillip said: “You literally couldn’t write this. If this was in a farce on the telly I would go: ‘That is a bit far-fetched. No government would ask that much.’

“It’s utterly astonishing. We have been really level on here, we have been really sensible on here, but this has just tipped us over the edge today.”

Here’s one we prepared earlier 

At 2pm the government issued a full 51-page “plan to rebuild” which set out in detail all of the things the government had not been explaining very well since Sunday.

But there were a few signs it had perhaps been put together in a bit of a hurry, not least in the use of the far from imprecise definition “and so on” when attempting to precisely define “essential retail”. 



On the plus side, it did explain that playing sport with people – well, one person – outside your own household was fine, despite this being the exact opposite of what the PM said in his pre-recorded-with-plenty-of-time-to-get-it-right TV slot the night before.

Will the real Boris Johnson please stand up?

Thus it was that, at 3.30pm, a man claiming to be Boris Johnson stood up in the Commons to clarify things.

He told Britain, simply, to “follow the rules” to control the spread of coronavirus. Rules, of course, recently published by the government that somewhat contradicted what another man claiming to be Boris Johnson had said on telly the previous night.

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