Order out of chaos: Covid-19 threat levels and the manufacture of competence

When I was teaching in China in the 1980s, no matter what essay topic I would set for my students, there was always a good portion of the class that chose to write about ‘The Four Modernizations’, which was the key Party policy at the time and the theme of a massive and constant propaganda campaign – China was to focus on modernizing four things in order to catch up with the West: Agriculture, industry, defence and science and technology. Everybody knew about the Four Modernization. So, no matter what I asked them to write about: ‘The Advantages and Disadvantages of Learning English’, ‘Gender Equality in Contemporary Society’, ‘the Role of the Fair Youth in Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, there were always students who managed to bring it back to the Four Modernizations. 

At first I thought naively that they had been so utterly brainwashed by government propaganda that they couldn’t manage to write about anything else. After a while, however, I realized that their love for the Four Modernizations had as much to do with pragmatism as it did with patriotism. From their point of view, the Four Modernizations provided the perfect scaffold for an English essay. All you needed was an introduction, a conclusion, and a paragraph for each modernization. It practically wrote itself. And for each of the body paragraphs, students were equipped with a wealth of formulaic phrases, slogans that they all seemed to know as well in English as they did in Chinese, such as ‘put economics in command,’ ‘produce more without waste,’ ‘every person must contribute more to the motherland,’ and the old favourite, ‘seek truth from facts’. As it turned out, the Four Modernizations provided a perfect vehicle for them to perform their English competence. 

Now I’m living in another country where they like slogans. For the past three months as the coronavirus has ravaged the country, taking over 30,000 souls from us, the Government of Boris Johnson has been experimenting with the colour, typography and design of the slogans that appear on the podiums at the Government’s daily briefings on the disaster. It started off as just a URL (nhs.uk/coronavirus), but quickly morphed into a three part slogan: ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. At first one part of the slogan appeared on each of the three podiums, but that strategy likely led to uncomfortable deliberations about which minister got to stand behind each of the phrases. (One can imagine Rishi Sunak complaining, ‘Do I have to be stay home again? Why can’t I be save lives this time?).

The solution was to put all three parts of the slogan together, but it took Government a while to figure out the best way to do that. At first the phrases appeared displayed vertically one on top of the other in three colours that, at least partially aligned with the (ISO) International Organization for Standardization’s design principles for safety signs and markings

Yellow (normally used as a warning colour) for Stay at Home 

Blue (often used for displaying vital or mandatory information) for Protect the NHS

The only problem was that ‘Save Lives’ was presented in red, the colour ISO recommends for communicating prohibition – talking about something you’re not supposed to do. 

In any case, the vertical arrangement of the three phrases on the podiums rendered the slogan practically illegible. 

So, in its next iteration, the phrases were arranged horizontally, which made it much easier to read, unless of course, you happened to be colour blind. But as soon as Government realized its mistake, they changed it up again. 

The next version is the one that has survived up until this weekend, that familiar yellow sign with red warning stripes that make the daily briefing resemble the scene of a traffic accident. 

But starting this week the message will change once again, this time with the introduction of an entirely new slogan: ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus, Save Lives’.

Not only has the wording changed, but so has the colour. Instead of the red warning stripes, the stripes are now green, which, according to the ISO should be used to communicate ‘Safe. No action required.’ 

The Government’s new slogan became the target of scathing criticism from the press and public before it even found its way onto the Prime Minster’s podium. Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, for example, remarked, ‘Stay alert? It’s a deadly virus not a zebra crossing,’ and Harry Potter author JK Rowling asked, ‘Is coronavirus sneaking around in a fake moustache and glasses? If we drop our guard, will it slip us a Micky Finn? What the hell is ‘stay alert’ supposed to mean?’ Oxford linguist Debroah Cameron tweeted. ‘It’s a virus, not an internet scam or a terrorist plot. WTF does ‘stay alert’ even mean.’ 

The new slogan was news to Nicola Sturgeon. Literally, since Boris had neglected to tip her off and she had had to read about it in the morning papers like everyone else. Of course, she had her own opinion about it: 

At least, though, the slogan gave people a new pastime to help them while away their time under lockdown. Within hours, social media was awash with parodies:

Rainbow Warriors

The ‘stay alert’ message wasn’t the only part of the Government’s new approach to Covid-19 that seemed like something out of a rerun of Homeland. Along with the new slogan, the Prime Minister announced a new Covid-19 alert system – based on the terror alert system instituted by the US in 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks and later in 2006 adopted in a slightly revised form by the UK– consisting of five threat levels ranging from green (level one) to red (level five). 

This elegant staged system is reminiscent of the elegant staged system the Government unfurled at the beginning of the outbreak in the UK, though one wonders how many of us can remember much about the stages laid out in that system (they were 1) containment, 2) delay, 3) research, 4) mitigation) or can confidently say what stage we are at now (is this really what ‘mitigation’ looks like?). 

There are lots of things about this new system that give me pause, not least of which is that by adopting a system used for terrorist alerts for health communication the Government is further perpetuating the militaristic framing that has characterised its response to the crisis from the beginning. Another problem I have is that terrorist alerts have more than one audience—they are directed both at the public and at the terrorists themselves, designed to discourage them from carrying out attacks in the context of increased attention from law enforcement. It doesn’t work that way with infectious diseases. I doubt the coronavirus was watching the Prime Minister’s speech last night.

My biggest concern, though, has to do with how effective a tool a colour coded system based on R0 will be for communicating a clear message to the public about what they should and shouldn’t do, especially since it is possible that the colour might change from day to day, and the threat level in some parts of the country could differ quite widely from others. 

It seems that he most important thing about the plan from the point of view of Government is the fact that it is a plan. Like the Four Modernizations, the colour coded alert system provides a kind of scaffolding upon which the Prime Minister and his Government can stage their performance of competence. 

To assess not how competent the Prime Minster is, but how effective the system itself might be as a health communication tool, it’s good to consider the terrorist alert system that it is modelled after. Britain’s colour coded terrorist alert system is based on a system instituted in the US in 2002 called the US Homeland Security Advisory System, which was intended to communicate to the public the chances of a terrorist event, presumably in order to help people ‘stay alert’ and to tell them how alert they should stay. During the nine years the system was in operation in the States, however, the threat level didn’t change much, mostly alternating between yellow (‘significant’ risk) and orange (‘high’  risk), and so the message it ended up sending was not particularly nuanced — basically, ‘be scared… all the time.’  

At the time of its release the system was widely ridiculed by opposition politicians and late night comedians, and opposition politicians acting like late night comedians: Representative Jane Harman (Democrat from California), for example, asked, ‘Who does (Assistant to the President for Homeland Security) Tom Ridge think he is, an interior decorator?’ The main criticism was that the system reduced something as multifaceted and complex as terrorism into a simple set of vague warnings (what’s the difference between a ‘significant’ threat and a ‘high’ threat) and that it treated terrorism in the same way as natural disasters like hurricanes were treated, distracting from conversations about what actually caused terrorism in the first place and how those root causes might be addressed.

The biggest criticism, however, was that the system didn’t really give the public very clear guidance as to what to do when they received a terrorist alert other than ‘stay alert’. The system didn’t provide specific information about the exact nature of the threat (since that information was mostly classified) and didn’t provide individuals with a concrete set of actions to take in response. As political scientists Tabitha Bonilla and Justin Grimmer put it: 

[T]he system was simply not fit for purpose in many ways. It contained, for example, little in the way of instruction, with only brief explanation of what people were supposed to do during an orange alert – such as avoid city centres, stay at home or stockpile food. 

In the end, then, the system ended up having a detrimental effect on the US government’s ability to communicate meaningfully with citizens about the threat of terrorism, mostly because it eroded trust in the government itself. This lack of trust manifested most dramatically in accusations that President Bush was manipulating the system for political purposes when people noticed that elevations from yellow to orange correlated with downturns in his approval ratings. After that, whenever the alert was elevated, rather than turning their attention to public safety, the public and the press spent their time searching for the political motivations behind the change. 

Meanwhile, studies conducted at the time showed that, while the alerts did increase people perception of the likelihood of a terrorist attack, they had little impact on people’s preferences about what policies the government should take to address the problem or their understanding of what they could do personally to keep themselves safe. Rather, the main results seemed to be increases in public pessimism about the economy and increases in the chances people would suffer from symptoms of general and phobic anxiety, and depression.

In 2011, the US scrapped the system in favour of the new National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), which is still in use. In the new system, there are no colours and just two threat levels: ‘elevated’, for when the government has credible information regarding a terrorist attack and ‘imminent’ for when the information is especially specific. Also, in the new system, when an alert is issued it includes the following information if available: geographic region, mode of transportation, critical infrastructure potentially affected by the threat, protective actions authorities are taking, and steps individuals or communities should be taking to protect themselves and their families.

In 2006 the UK unveiled its own version of the US colour coded system, partly based on a system that was already in place called BIKINI (officials claim there is no significance to the name), the use of which had been restricted to government departments. But after calls for more greater transparency surrounding the Government’s measures for monitoring and responding to terrorist threats, the UK Threat Level system was rolled out for the general public. One likely reason that Government thought this to be a good idea was that they believed it would protect politicians and intelligence services from accusations of withholding crucial information from citizens, especially in the event that something went terribly wrong.  

But, like the American system, the UK Threat Level system has some worrying ambiguities, particularly in terms of how members of the public are meant to respond to various kinds of alerts. It is unclear for example, whether the correct response to a ‘critical’ threat level is for the public to avoid certain areas, to monitor the media for further information, or to go about business as usual. As a result, such alerts seem to have little impact on public behaviour. 

The way the five levels of the system are labelled is also problematic given how similar some of the words are in meaning. The words used for the top three levels – ‘critical’, ‘severe’ and ‘substantial’ – are essentially synonyms for most people. Such ambiguity can actually desensitize the public to the whole notion of a ‘threat’ and feed into cynical theories that the Government is only trying to cover their ass by constantly keeping the country at what sounds like a high level of alert.

If you’re looking for clarity about what you are actually supposed to do while staying alert, you might check the website of the Security Service (M15), where you would learn that actually you’re not supposed to do anything other than remain ‘vigilant’. Under the heading, How should you respond? the website advises. 

Threat levels in themselves do not require specific responses from the public. They are a tool for security practitioners working across different sectors of the Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) and the police to use in determining what protective security response may be required.

Vigilance is vital regardless of the current national threat level. It is especially important given the current national threat. Sharing national threat levels with the general public keeps everyone informed.

In other words—‘Stay Alert’. 

‘Threat levels in themselves do not require specific responses from the public.’

UK Security Services

In some ways, governments who adopt systems like this are in a double bind, guilty if they alert people too much and guilty if they don’t alert them enough. As security scholar Lawrence Freedman puts it. 

Governments that say nothing when aware of a possible threat will be accused, should one materialize, of failing in their duty. Governments which warn regularly, but without much happening, will be accused of alarmism. If they warn, but can offer no useful advice, then the public will have another reason for dissatisfaction. Unless high risk areas can be identified with some specificity then it is unclear what can be achieved through general exhortations to be vigilant and take reasonable precautions in everyday activities. The sins of omission or commission compete, with bad advice generating panic at one extreme and apathy at one at the other.

The bottom line is, colour coded alert systems are simply not very effective ways of alerting people to threats. 

Go to work (maybe)

But based on the Prime Minister’s presentation last night, it is clear that he was determined not to fall into the trap of ambiguity that has plagued past alert systems. He really wanted to explain very clearly what we should do at each stage, and he did so with a nifty looking chart and easy to understand icons. We learned, for example, that at step 1 (presumably something like threat level 3.5), we should sit in the park and take some sun, we should exercise as much as we like, and that we should definitely, probably go to work if possible. At step two we should send our kids to school. And at step three we should take in a film and maybe have a nice meal with our mates.   

Of course, these simple icons conceal the fact that what the Prime Minister was talking about was not simple at all. Behind each of the icons lurks a plethora of ifs, buts and maybes. A good example is going to work, which the Prime Minster seemed to be saying that people should do if possible, starting today, especially if you work in a job that doesn’t pay very much such as one in a factory or on a construction site.

Here’s what the Prime Minster said;

We said that you should work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must.

We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.

And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited.

So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.

And to ensure you are safe at work we have been working to establish new guidance for employers to make workplaces COVID-secure.

At this point in the Prime Minister’s talk a little icon of a certificate popped up in the chart, perhaps to signify some kind of seal of approval that workplaces would get for meeting ‘Covid-secure standards’.

But behind that icon are a range of very thorny questions. What will the standards be? Who will decide? Will workplaces be subject to regulation or will it just be a matter of ‘guidance’ from the Government? What if my employer doesn’t follow the standards?  What if I don’t want to go to work? What if I’m afraid of dying? 

So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

These questions are particularly pertinent for anyone who has been following recent developments in the US, where the President has ordered meat packing plants to remain open but refused to require their owners to take measures that might protect workers such as arranging for social distancing or providing personal protective equipment. As a result, meat packing plants all across the mid-west are suffering from alarming coronavirus outbreaks. But McDonald’s keeps churning out cheeseburgers. 

According to the Telegraph, the main impetus behind Downing Streets new slogan, ‘Stay Alert’ was the fear that the previous slogan to ‘Stay Home’ had proved too effective, and that Government was under increased pressure from employers to get people back on the job. Here’s where the parody shared by my colleague Christian Chun seems particularly appropriate:


The main problem with the Government’s approach is that it is trying to dress up what is essentially a lot of vague advice in a system that is trying to impersonate precision. It is this illusion of precision that is even more dangerous than the vagueness of the advice. Studies show that when people think advice seems precise and scientific, they are actually more likely to take unnecessary risks. 

By saying that the Prime Minister is using this elaborate colour coded system as a way to manufacture competence, I don’t mean to be insulting or to imply that he lacks actual competence (perish the thought). Policy communication requires the discursive construction of competence in order to win support from the public. The problem is that he has not shown he is competent in showing he is competent. 

It’s not rocket science. In his article on the demise of the colour coded terrorist threats in the US, Philip Kirby points out that there are only three things you need to get right to successfully produce the speech act of an ‘alert’ – the source of the alert has to be trusted; the nature of the danger must be communicated in a timely manner; and the instructions for action must be clear. He offers as the quintessential example of a successful ‘alert’ the midnight ride of Paul Revere during the US Revolutionary War:  

In the middle of the night on 18 April 1775, Paul Revere embarked on his celebrated ride across Massachusetts, warning American patriots in his immortal – if likely apocryphal – words ‘the British are coming!’ His was one of the earliest American warning systems: primitive, but effective. Revere was trusted, his warning prompt and the instructions clear: take up arms and do it now. 

Maybe next time Boris should rent a horse. 

3 thoughts on “Order out of chaos: Covid-19 threat levels and the manufacture of competence

  1. “The way the five levels of the system are labelled is also problematic given how similar some of the words are in meaning. The words used for the top three levels – ‘critical’, ‘severe’ and ‘substantial’ – are essentially synonyms for most people.”

    Also from China: ‘Professor Jones, what is the difference between rapid and fast?’


    This article conclusively demonstrates most government actions are taken only to provide the possibility of piercing parody.


    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: