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The UK government has returned to its ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives’ Covid-19 messaging, with a new broadcast urging the British public to ‘act like you’ve got it’ already.

The latest public health campaign was unveiled on Saturday (9 January) and fronted by chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and comes as cases surged across the country due to a new, highly transmissible strain of the virus.

The push follows earlier campaigns, including ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’, which came under much scrutiny for its vague messaging and ‘Hands. Face. Space’ which reflected the precautions needed as UK lockdown restrictions were eased in the summer.

After nearly a year of living with the pandemic, The Drum reflects on the latest campaign and how the UK government’s public messaging has evolved throughout the crisis. 

Let's take it from the top to show how the campaign has evolved.

‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’

The government’s debut slogan was front and centre of its initial lockdown measures back in March, with the public encouraged to stay at home in order to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. 

A TV spot was developed, fronted by the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Witty. The broadcast included simple instructions that requested citizens not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary: for food, medicine, work or exercise, to always stay two metres apart, and not to mix with anyone outside their households. 

 
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However, as cases increased, a further spot was developed to emphasise the danger to the NHS if people did not heed government advice. 

With a voiceover by actor Mark Strong, the second video played to emotions and was cut through with footage of NHS workers in PPE, emphasising the public duty to protect frontline workers and resources within the health service, by abiding to the guidelines. 

 
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This was further accompanied by display and social media activity that urged people to ’act like you've got it,’ and remind them that ’anyone can get it.’

 
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‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’

In early May, decreasing cases saw prime minister Boris Johnson begin to gradually ease lockdown measures. 

He set out plans to re-open parts of the economy, such as non-essential retail and hospitality, as well as plans for children to return to school.

This shift in guidance heralded the arrival of the second message, ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’. However, the slogan came under scrutiny from many, including the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, for being too vague.

“Stay alert isn‘t clear. Most people have been saying ‘what does that mean?‘ So, there‘s a very basic issue here about communications,“ he said. 

Stay Alert
 
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However, this didn’t stop the government joining forces with some of the UK’s most powerful brands to encourage safe behaviour as lockdown measures were lifted. 

The brands involved came from all sectors. Boots, Carex and O2 came together to encourage safe behaviour and good hygiene habits and in the hospitality sector, McDonald’s and Greene King championed safely re-opening the UK economy. 

For the first time, brands across the hospitality industry, in the health and hygiene, retail, telecoms and finance sectors, came together to promote the government’s message to ‘Enjoy Summer Safely,’ and the effort saw a number of the brands involved update their logos to include the slogan. 

 
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‘Enjoy Summer Safely’ was accompanied by a further campaign featuring small business owners up and down the country, and which welcomed the public back to some of the things they may have missed during lockdown, while encouraging them to do so in a safe and considerate fashion. 

However, elements of the campaign of the further ‘Let's get back’ campaign backfired after the slogan encouraged thousands of people to turn up for Covid-19 tests they weren't eligible for. 

Digital and OOH ads bearing the ‘Let's get back’ slogan were pulled after the realisation that the ad implied people should seek testing, without making mention of the fact that symptoms should have been displayed before they did so.

 
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 In the 60-second ad, an NHS nurse says “Testing is free, quick and vital to stop the spread of coronavirus, so let’s get tested and get back to the things we love.”

Yet the ad made no mention of the requirement for symptoms, except for a small piece of text reading, “Feeling unwell? Get a free test now”.

The confusion led to thousands of asymptomatic people seeking tests, which further overwhelmed the system which was already delayed in its implementation.  

‘Hands. Face. Space’

As lockdown restrictions lifted further, the UK economy continued its recovery into July, and children and young people returned to school for the first time since March. 

To reflect the change in guidance and the potential of a return to normality, on Wednesday 9 September the government re-released its latest slogan of ‘Hands. Face. Space’ – described by Johnson himself as “pretty punchy.”

The slogan was initially debuted back in July, but collided with chancellor Rishi Sunak’s invitation to ‘Eat out to help out’, and as such did not enter the mainstream discourse. 

Its message is one that promotes hygiene and physical distancing – measures which are set to become prescient once again as the R number creeps back up to 1.2. 

‘Hands. Face. Space’ was once again being backed by OOH, digital and TV advertising, including a hero spot which sees people washing their hands, wearing a mask, and ensuring they are keeping their distance from others. 

 
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A second film warned of the potential risk imposed by the winter season, by highlighting how the virus can spread in an indoor setting. 

The campaign arrived at the same time as restrictions were adjusted to limit gatherings to a maximum of 6, following a spike in new cases. 

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty says: “As we approach winter and inevitably spend more time indoors, we need the public to keep following this important advice to control the spread of the virus.

“‘Hands. Face. Space’ emphasises important elements of the guidance we want everybody to remember: wash your hands regularly, use a face covering when social distancing is not possible and try to keep your distance from those not in your household.“

‘Every Action Counts’

The launch of the government's latest campaign comes as data shows that up to a third of people carrying Covid-19 can be asymptomatic and pass on the virus without realising.

With England's four-week lockdown easing just in time for Christmas, the spot is a timely reminder of the continuing need for precautions to protect ourselves and others from the virus.

The film, created with SAGE scientists, reminds the public of the need to remain vigilant and follow the core behaviours of washing hands, wearing a face covering, keeping distance from others and opening windows when in enclosed spaces.

The film shows two versions of the same scenarios. One shows how an individual following the key health behaviours can limit the spread of the virus, whilst the other demonstrates how ignoring these behaviours leads to an increased potential to infect others. People are reminded that, as restrictions lift and they begin to socialise again, coronavirus remains highly contagious whether you have symptoms or not.

The film also emphasises the chain of infection and demonstrates how people might interact with others who are not at risk of becoming seriously ill, but they later meet others who could be vulnerable and experience severe complications from Covid-19.

‘Act like you've got it’

The UK government has renewed its ‘Stay at home’ advice in the latest campaign, fronted by chief medical officer Chris Whitty.

Running across TV, radio, outdoor and social media, the campaign marks a return to the advice originally put forward by the government during the initial nationwide lockdown in March, which encourages UK residents to ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.’ 

However, the latest advice also includes encouragement to ‘act like you've got it’, which has been put forward as cases continue surge across the country due to a new variant of the virus. 

“This puts many people at risk of serious disease and is placing a lot of pressure on our NHS.

“Once more, we must all stay home. If it’s essential to go out, remember: wash your hands, cover your face indoors and keep your distance from others," says Whitty in the PSA. 

The advice was launched over the weekend, as the UK recorded its highest single-day death toll since the start of the pandemic.