Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
30 December 2021updated 31 Dec 2021 2:59pm

The attempt to rebrand Covid restrictions as “protections” is sinister and counter-productive

Fiddling around with terminology just makes the job of assessing what measures are necessary harder, and gets up people’s noses, as if the constant lateral flows going up there weren’t burden enough.

By James Ball

When trying to win an argument on public policy, it is best not to prove your adversary’s own point – especially when elements of the other side of the debate are outright unhinged.

The fringes of the Covid-sceptic movement are about as unhinged as it’s possible to get – haphazardly sticking “facts” together to deduce that the virus we’ve been grappling with for the past two years is a plot to kill everyone with 5G, the vaccine, or some combination of the two.

But even the more sensible wings of the Covid-sceptic faction have a tendency towards hyperbole when it comes to lockdowns, isolation, masking, or other coronavirus restrictions. Whenever they comment on Covid rules, within a few short sentences phrases like “Orwellian” soon start to appear.

So far, these accusations have been easy to rebut: early police overreach in 2020 lockdowns was quickly and freely reported by British newspapers, leading to hasty climb-downs. Restrictions in the UK have been backed by public health experts, and subject to democratic – and often contested – votes in parliament. As the pandemic has waxed and waned, restrictions have been pared back accordingly.

But now, enter the well-meaning but overly intense public health lobby – particularly on Twitter. Their new mantra is that the simple act of calling Covid rules “restrictions” is problematic. These aren’t “restrictions”, they argue – because their intent is to curb a pandemic and protect the vulnerable, they are “protections”.

It is not clear what the benefit of this re-framing is supposed to be. If the idea is that someone previously unconvinced by the idea of self-isolating for a week when they feel perfectly healthy will enthusiastically embrace it now it’s a “protection”, then it is a doomed one.

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

Alternatively, if the intention is to delegitimise complaints about Covid restrictions, then it’s simply mean-spirited. Yes, complaining about the need to wear a mask now and then is just tedious whining. But people who live alone complaining about highly limited social mixing is not. Nor are the complaints of hospitality businesses who’ve just seen their most profitable trading period ruined, with virtually no compensation. Neither are the worries of parents facing their children missing yet more education.

Many Covid restrictions, even when necessary, are onerous and carry a toll. To glibly re-brand something as “protection” does nothing to change that. It is difficult to imagine how this kind of re-brand could carry any benefit.

And it may well carry a cost. For a start, openly trying to change the language hands ammunition to the “it’s Orwellian” Covid-sceptics, who have seized on this effort as evidence they were right all along.

More interestingly, it prompts the very debate that this overzealous public health lobby seems determined to avoid.

Advocates of the re-brand have reached for the analogy of the seat belt, arguing that while it could be called a “restriction”, it is in fact a “protection” against car crashes. (In reality it is both, as anyone who has reached around in a footwell for a dropped mobile phone will know.)

That argument makes “protection” look very reasonable. But any dictator could easily argue he is placing you under house arrest as a “protection” against road traffic injury – and it would work very effectively as such. Said dictator could similarly argue he was restricting the media as a “protection” against social division, which would also be true. Few of us would think such “protections” were at all proportionate.

That brings us back to an argument about proportionality, having to discuss the costs versus the merits of each new potential Covid regulation on a case-by-case basis. That calculus is complex and ever-changing: how virulent is Omicron, how serious is it, how full are hospitals, how is the public mood, how many people are isolating? As ever, there are few easy answers. Altering terminology at this point just makes that job harder, and gets up people’s noses, as if the constant lateral flow tests going up there weren’t burden enough.

Polling shows that re-framing an issue can move public opinion quite markedly – but only on issues they don’t know or care much about. The public is very aware of Covid and cares quite a lot about it. A re-brand won’t help with that at all – even Twitter surely has better things to do with its time.

[See also: I backed every lockdown – but the cost of another is simply too great]

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.