I have lost count of the amount of times that I have heard the UK Government talk about the NHS being on a ‘war footing’ or that we are in a ‘war against Covid-19’. The phrase seems to be easily trotted out but what does it actually mean, if anything? And more importantly what impression does it create with people when they hear that being used?
Those old enough will remember the ‘war on terror’ becoming a phrase in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in America. It was used by then President George W Bush and subsequently was used by the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. But there is a lot of academic research about the impact of using the phrase, and whether it caused harm and made the situation worse. There is a view that it created a simplified view of the ‘enemy’ and assist the terrorists in developing their own narrative.
Now 20 years later we are if we believe the rhetoric we are in a war against an invisible enemy, this time a virus. The current pandemic is not equivalent of a war. There is no opposing side that is making decisions on the next step. This is not a situation where there will be a truce or one side will be victorious. What we know is that the virus will mutate, develop and change, and we will be learning to live with it in the same way we do with many other illnesses.
People listening to the ‘war’ analogy may have the mistaken view that there will be an end date. A point where the war ends and the virus disappears, and that we can use for future days of remembrance. This war may appear to be beyond our control as we passively wait for the next strategic decision by those in charge. In reality, we all have a key part to play in limiting the spread, development and future mutation of the virus. If the NHS is now on a ‘war footing’ what does that mean? Are they waiting for the enemy to attack people and send them into hospitals? The phrase just doesn’t stack up for me.
From March 2020, I have continued to talk about how important the words and phrases are that people in authority use when dealing with a crisis. It can mean the difference between trust and confidence in those in charge and people being confused, unsure of what to do. What we need now more than ever is clear and honest communication. Stop talking about a war on Covid-19 and start to help people understand how to manage risk and learn to live with the virus.