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UK government pushes rapid testing and vaccination for under 50's in latest Covid comms


By The Drum Team, Editorial

April 27, 2021 | 14 min read

No one can quite believe it, but it's been over a year since the UK went into lockdown. Over the course of the crisis, the government has deployed a number of Covid-19 ad campaigns, offering citizens guidance and support.

The latest spots created by MullenLowe highlight the importance of vaccination for the next eligible age group (the under '50s) and rapid flow testing, which is now available for everyone in England.

The Drum reflects on the latest work, following a year of pandemic PSAs and the (sometimes controversial) methods used by the government to get people to stay home and stay safe.

March 2020: 'Protect Yourself & Others'

The first time Tom Knox, MullenLowe’s executive partner and longest-serving member of its Covid response team can find a reference to Covid in his inbox, was the first week of February.

“Things happened very quickly,“ he recalls. “Almost immediately, I found myself in the Cabinet Room with (former chief of staff) Dominic Cummings explaining the launch campaign of hand hygiene message.

“It was apparent straight away that this was absolutely the top priority of the government and that they were going to be rigorous about researching everything. And it all snowballed from there.”

Covid comms 1

Aligning with the governments three phrases - prevent, manage and contain - the first 'prevent' work emerged at the beginning of March. Featuring posters and social media ads, it was designed to reinforce the importance of hand-washing for at least 20 seconds (remember all those Happy Birthdays?)

March 2020: ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’

As things grew steadily worse, on 24 March Boris Johnson addressed the 27.1 million that tuned in to hear about his strict new coronavirus restrictions. Off the back of that, the NHS unveiled the next phase of its expanded coronavirus public information campaign that reinforced Johnson's message.

The government’s 'Stay Home, protect the NHS, save lives' slogan was front and centre, encouraging the public 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.

April 2020: 'Act like you've got it'

In April, as cases increased, a further spot was developed to emphasise the danger to the NHS if people did not heed government advice. The campaign urgently adapted its 'Stay Home' message, making it harder hitting by featuring footage of frontline staff.

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.

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.’

May 2020: '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

July 2020: 'Enjoy Summer Safely'

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.’

Joining forces with some of the UK’s most powerful brands to encourage safe behaviour as lockdown measures were lifted, the government worked with the likes of Boots, Carex and O2 to encourage safe behaviour and good hygiene habits. And to help them champion the re-opening of the UK economy, it teamed up with McDonald’s and Greene King. The effort saw a number of the brands involved update their logos to include the 'Enjoy Summer Safely' slogan.

‘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.

August 2020: 'Let's Get Back'

To encourage more people to get a test, NHS Track and Trace launched 'Let's Get Back'. The campaign was devised to help build public understanding of the NHS Test and Trace system.

However, elements of the 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.

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.

September 2020: '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 that were set to become prescient once again as the R number crept back up to 1.2.

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

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.

December 2020: ‘Every Action Counts’

As data showed that up to a third of people carrying Covid-19 can be asymptomatic meaning they could pass on the virus without realising, in December the government launched 'Every Action Counts'.

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

The film, created with Sage scientists, reminded 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 showed two versions of the same scenario. One that depicted how an individual following the key health behaviours can limit the spread of the virus. The second demonstrated how ignoring those behaviours could lead to an increased potential to infect others.

The film also emphasised the chain of infection and demonstrated 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.

January 2021: ‘Act like you've got it’

In January, the UK government renewed its ‘Stay at home’ advice, once again putting chief medical officer Chris Whitty at the forefront.

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

However, this message was bolstered with the encouragement - ‘act like you've got it’, which was put forward as cases continued to surge across the country due to the new variant of the virus.

“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," advised Whitty in the PSA.

January 2021: UK Government pulls controversial radio ad

The Cabinet Office was forced to pull a radio ad, after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received a number of complaints, from people who felt the messaging was too severe.

The radio ad targeted joggers, dog walkers or working in the park, suggesting they were 'highly likely to have Covid-19'.

The ASA is also looking into further ads, including a poster campaign that urged readers 'don't let a coffee cost lives'.

January 2021: 'Look into my eyes'

At the height of the second wave, a person was admitted every 30 seconds with the virus, with a quarter of those under the age of 55. At this point, the government decided to take a more empathetic approach.

“With ‘Look Into My Eyes‘ we were deliberately more empathetic, acknowledging that this is a hard thing that we‘re asking people to do – specifically targeted at those who thought the risk was exaggerated,“ Knox explains.

Alarmed by the current state of the pandemic, the UK Government released a hardhitting campaign on Friday (22 January) to remind the public of the extreme pressures facing the NHS and the need to stay home.

'Look into My Eyes' features Covid-19 patients battling for their lives, and the NHS staff who are risking their lives to save others.

A shift in tone, the film presents viewers with the harsh reality of the coronavirus, in the hope it encourages them to stay at home, to prevent further spread.

Developed by MullenLowe, it challenging the public to question their actions, it asks the viewer to: “Look them in the eyes and tell them you are doing all you can to stop the spread of Covid-19?"

And the result was so effective, it resulted in loads of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). “We were slightly amused. Most of the grounds for complaint was that the advertising was exaggerating the threat of coronavirus, which is of course, insane,“ Knox recalls.

February 2021: 'Keep Going'

After Johnson set out his roadmap out of lockdown, MullenLowe created 'Keep Going' to urge the public to remain home, as they continue to endure Lockdown 3.0.

Amid falling infection rates, "Every sacrifice, every day at home, every covered face, every wipe, every step aside, every 20-seconds, every friend unhugged, everything we're doing is helping stop the spread of Covid-19," says the voiceover, over footage of people going about their day under Covid restrictions. "Let's keep going," she concludes. Beyond TV, it will run across radio, advertising billboards and social media.

March 2021: 'Hands, Face, Space and Fresh Air'

The latest government campaign marks a return to September 2021's 'Hands. Face. Space' messaging, only this iteration adds the extension of 'Fresh Air' to remind people that meeting indoors is still forbidden despite rules on meeting outside loosening.

In England, lockdown restrictions now allow for six people from two households to socialise in parks and gardens, and for outdoor sports facilities to re-open. However, as the government spot reminds us, meeting indoors allows for the easy transmission of Covid-19, and people should therefore keep their homes ventilated by opening windows, and be mindful to keep their distance from anyone outside of their household.

March 2021: Mission incomplete

One year on from when the first lockdown came into effect, the comms mission was far from complete, despite vital vaccine work incoming. “The next phase will be – how we get people to actually leave their homes,“ muses Katie McCambley, joint head of account management.

“On my social channels, I see a lot of people who are very nervous about going back to normal because we've become so used to living this way.“

April 2021: 'Every vaccine gives us hope'

With the Covid vaccination programme now being extended to younger age groups, the government launched a campaign to encourage those under 50 to get the jab.

Since the vaccination rollout began in December, more than 28 million people have been vaccinated with a first dose in England, 63.8% of the total population of adults aged over 18.

Soundtracked by a cover of Dinah Washington's What a Difference a Day Makes, the spot shows people across the UK getting vaccinated in order to protect themselves and others from the virus.

April 2021: Weekly testing

In a double-pronged attempt to stop the spread of the virus, the government is also encouraging the public to take 'the next step to safety' and utilise the free, rapid-testing service twice a week.

The spot has been originally planned to air ahead of the easing of lockdown restrictions in England, but was postponed when the Duke of Edinburgh’s death led the broadcaster to suspend all advertising.

The latest ad emphasises that while waiting to get vaccinated, people in England can still protect their “loved ones, friends and workmates” by making use of rapid-testing.

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