UK PM Boris Johnson's new 'stay alert' coronavirus warning criticized as 'confused' and 'nonsensical'

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson records a televised message to the nation released on May 10, 2020 in London, England.
No 10 Downing Street | Getty Images
Key Points
  • "Stay alert" is the new message from the U.K.'s coronavirus safety campaign.
  • It has caused confusion among the public and has been rejected by devolved nations Scotland and Wales.

"Stay alert" is the new message from the U.K.'s coronavirus safety campaign, but it has caused confusion among the public and been rejected by devolved nations Scotland and Wales.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government updated its coronavirus campaign slogan to "Stay alert, control the virus, save lives," on Sunday, from its previous iteration, which mentioned the country's National Health Service: "Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives."

But as the U.K. has started to slowly ease its lockdown, communication experts have criticized the message for a lack of clarity.

Christopher Rickwood, an independent PR consultant, questioned why people had now been told to "stay alert."

"Why change the messaging if the situation hasn't changed? It's nonsensical," he said in an email to CNBC.

"What we all need is crystal clear, unequivocal, straight-talking messaging that can't be misinterpreted or misunderstood. I understand the frustrations, but this confused new 'campaign' message feels like an attempt to give the illusion of progress and optimism when in reality very little has changed."

He added: "I would have stuck with 'stay at home'. Simple, clear, direct — tough love all the way."

Joe Stubbs, VP and Global Brand director at consultancy Interbrand, agreed that clarity is needed.

"'Stay alert' is open to misinterpretation. It's not absolute — at a critical moment, when people are looking for certainty. What are the public meant to be alert to — other people, signs of illness, a failure to social distance?" he wrote in an email to CNBC.

Life after lockdown

For Michael Frohlich, CEO of ad agency Ogilvy UK, the "stay alert" message could have been introduced later. "It's understandable that the U.K. government wanted to create a feeling of progress," he said in an email. "Although it may have lacked impact, enforcing a gradual change in lockdown rules first, followed by the overarching messaging being amended at a later stage, would have caused much less confusion."

Britain's new lockdown rules, announced Sunday and detailed Monday, allow people to take unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise from Wednesday; previously people were permitted to do so only once. They will also be allowed to meet one person from another household outdoors, as long as they stay 2 meters apart.

Not all marketing experts dislike the new message. For Steve Hastings, planning partner at ad agency Isobel, "stay alert" will work as the lockdown is eased. "It has to be flexible, contingent, able to ride with the policy as it is applied over the next few months. People will come to like it — newness is easy to reject," he said.

Scotland and Wales have their own powers over lockdown, and on Sunday, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that "Stay home" will continue to be her message to Scotland.

"The Sunday papers is the first I've seen of the PM's new slogan. It is of course for him to decide what's most appropriate for England, but given the critical point we are at in tackling the virus, #StayHomeSaveLives remains my clear message to Scotland at this stage," she wrote.

Sturgeon announced one change to lockdown rules for Scotland: That people could now exercise outside as often as they liked, instead of just once a day.

In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford sent a similar tweet on Sunday. "My message to the people of Wales hasn't changed. Staying at home is the best way you can protect yourself and others," he said.