Stupid COVID Headlines Deconstructed. 1

The Daily Mail 21/12/21


Strapline: Ministers defy gloomy scientists by refusing to level new curbs without concrete evidence to justify them.

This is a humdinger! “REJOICE!” – with its echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s triumphalism after the Falklands War merging with the overall theme that Xmas is supposed to be a time for Christians to rejoice about the birth of Christ (cue Hallelujah chorus) and everyone else to get happy by eating, drinking and consuming too much – leads on to the downright paradoxical “Xmas is looking safe” (my emphasis). “Safe” of course, has two meanings here. “Safe” as in – going ahead with no restrictions. And “safe” as in, well, actually safe in a medical sense. The implication that the latter is the case is sneaked in on the coat tails of good feelings about the former; even though it so obviously isn’t (and polls show that most people don’t think it is either).

In case anyone is any doubt, the message is hammered home in the strapline.

This is also a classic of its sort.

“Ministers defy gloomy scientists”. How brave of them! Its not as if they have the power in this situation. The “scientists” being described as “gloomy” here are the official SAGE committee. “Gloomy” is a way of dismissing a unanimous view from a body of scientists charged with giving advice to keep us all safe, as though that advice is the result of a killjoy frame of mind rather than a sober assessment of the risks and what we need to do to keep a grip on them. Chris Whitty as the Grinch? Because, who wants to be sober at Xmas? Throughout the pandemic, the official SAGE has tended to be rather cautious in its recommendations – but have several times proposed quicker, sharper, more comprehensive action to stop the spread of the virus than the government has been prepared to take. The government has “defied” this advice every time and dithered along for a few more weeks whistling in the wind with its fingers firmly crossed hoping that the inevitable won’t happen. Then they have u-turned because it has.

This is the concrete content of the Mail’s call for “concrete evidence to justify” the measures that will be required. It takes a willful disregard for the entire experience of this pandemic to presume that this evidence won’t turn up in increased cases, hospitalisations and deaths over the next month. The Mail, as with so many other things, gets the relationship exactly the wrong way round. “Concrete evidence”, in the form of deaths, is exactly what we need to take the measures to avoid.

The paradox of all this is that people are for the most part more cautious than the government, queuing round the block for booster jabs and cancelling meals out and social occasions, digging their masks out and putting them on. The result of this socially responsible caution will be to slow down the rate that the virus spreads. The Mail will doubtless claim in a week or so that the effect of this is some sort of natural feature of Omicron, which made the caution redundant, while cheering on the people going out and spending in hospitality and putting everyone else at risk.

Of course, on the same front page, they had an inset box with a large picture of the Queen smiling in festive red – giving the impression she is happy with their main headline – but, with a slight self consciousness about the dissonance involved – accompanied by the sub headline “As the Queen cancels her Sandringham Festivities, Richard Kay reveals what it all means” which indicates that the 95 year old head of state is actually listening to the “gloomy scientists” and voting with her feet like so many of the rest of us are. God saves those that save themselves?

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