In most countries, slogans about the national effort to combat coronavirus have focused on survival or the human spirit. Iran has gone for the simple approach (“Stay at home”), Switzerland the communal (“This affects us all”), Italy is trying to spread a message of reassurance (“Everything will be all right”), India is pleading (“Go corona go!”) and practical (“Prepare, don’t panic”), and Argentina is focusing on gratitude to health workers (“Thanks from my heart”). Meanwhile, China has gone for the direct approach: “If you hang out in public today / Grass will grow on your grave next year.”

But the British government has opted for a different focus. With “Stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives”, the message seems to be if you act responsibly you can protect your prized asset – and, as a byproduct, that will save lives.

Boris Johnson, of course, has form with vacuous three-word slogans – be it “Take back control” or “Get Brexit done”. And now we have a triptych slogan – three three-worders for the price of one. The first and last bit make perfect sense. Of course, we should stay at home to save lives. It’s only when you add the bit in the middle that the slogan becomes questionable.

First, there’s the rank hypocrisy of a government that has spent 10 years doing the exact opposite of ordering us to protect the NHS. In fact, the Tory-led coalition was so little trusted with the NHS that David Cameron had to create his own slogan in 2011 to reassure the public: “The NHS is safe in our hands”.

Over the next decade, the Tories went on to neglect the NHS at best, pillage it at worst. Pre-Covid-19, the number of NHS hospital beds had fallen dramatically and we were short of an estimated 43,000 nurses.

The Tory government also did its best to quietly sell off parts of the NHS. In 2013 the government sold 80% of the state-owned blood plasma supplier to the US private equity firm Bain Capital for $200m. This despite the obscenity of Britain’s contaminated blood scandal when more than 4,500 haemophiliacs became infected with hepatitis and HIV in the 1970s and 1980s after being poisoned with blood products brought on the cheap from abroad. In 2016 Britain’s plasma supplier was sold on to a Chinese company for £820m (along with the government’s remaining 20% stake). Protect the NHS? The Tories flogged the country’s lifeblood for tuppence ha’penny.

Johnson talks with pride about “our NHS” and our heroic NHS workers. Yet this is the same man who voted against scrapping the 1% pay-rise cap for NHS nurses in 2017, and was a member of the government that cheered when a pay rise for nurses was blocked.

Then it was the turn of the health secretary, Matthew Hancock, to tell us how proud he was of us for staying at home, protecting the NHS and saving lives.

There is something distasteful about a government telling us to protect the NHS when the government itself is so obviously failing to do so in this terrible crisis. As of Thursday, only 7,000 out of 550,000 frontline NHS workers have been tested for Covid-19. Not only does this mean the government is failing to protect the NHS and its workers – it hasn’t even been able to provide the required personal protective equipment – it is, in turn, failing to protect us all because the public could be treated by infected staff members.

But there’s something about “Stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives” that offends on an even deeper level. The slogan is a throwback to the Vote Leave campaign of 2016, which also famously weaponised the NHS. Back then, Johnson was pictured in front of a campaign bus with the following words plastered across it: “We send the EU £350million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.” (A figure that he later revised downwards by £100m). Johnson has always been aware that the NHS is an emotional trigger for the British people, and he has been quick to exploit it. This time round, he’s using it just as cynically – but rather than bribing us with what can be added to the NHS, he’s threatening us with what we can lose. Johnson is toying not only with our pride in the health service, but also our sense of ownership of it.

Whether carrot or stick, it is offensive to assume we need an incentive to save lives. You can see it even more clearly in the choreography of the catchphrase at the daily press briefing, bookended by two towering union flags. Between each of the three elements there is an arrow to clarify the priorities – staying at home leads to protecting the NHS, and protecting the NHS in turn leads to saving lives.

This slogan might be intended to appeal to our love of the NHS, but in fact it debases it. The government has taken the concept of the NHS, stripped it of its core egalitarian beauty, and transformed it into little more than a material asset. If we don’t stay at home we fail to protect the NHS, and stand to lose that which is rightfully ours.

Like tens of millions of British people, I have stood in the street and applauded NHS and care workers. Like them, I am inordinately proud of, and thankful to, the NHS. But we don’t need to be threatened with its devastation, or bribed with the promise of its salvation, to be encouraged to save lives.

The slogan has made staying at home purely about self-interest rather than solidarity and our common humanity. But we are bigger and better than that. However much we love the NHS, however much we want to protect the NHS, we are staying at home to save lives – not to safeguard our national assets. If we protect the NHS in the process, so much the better. A government that believed in its people would be content with a kinder, simpler slogan: stay at home and save lives.

Simon Hattenstone is a Guardian features writer

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