In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the lovelorn Juliet reflects that whatever you name things, their reality remains the same. She says of her lover, Romeo, that although he comes from a rival family, whose name is loathed in her own family, “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” That may be true in romance or poetry, but more prosaically in Britain in the past few days we have had several examples of renaming or rebranding the reality of our lives to make things seem a little sweeter. And – unfortunately – they’re not. Changing the name, the label or the definition of a problem does not change the problem.
Take global warming, for example, and the definition of a “heatwave”. The BBC recently carried a news story about how increasing temperatures are changing what is defined by the UK Met Office as a “heatwave”. It is “when an area experiences daily maximum temperatures meeting or exceeding a certain level for three days in a row.” But that “certain level” has now been increased in eight counties in England by 1°C because climate data shows "undeniable warming" in the UK.
Changing the definition clearly does not change the facts. The same is true of coronavirus too. The pandemic is still with us. Cases in the UK have hit record levels, with almost five million of us – 1 in 13 – testing positive for the virus. This is inconvenient for all the obvious reasons, but also because the British government has decided no longer to offer free lateral flow tests and it has changed official advice on self-isolating, as if coronavirus were to be considered no worse than a cold. But hospital admissions for patients with coronavirus have reached record levels in Scotland and have increased all across the UK. We now have 166,000 deaths at the latest count.
Anecdotally, I know more people suffering from coronavirus in the past week than at any time in the past two years – my neighbours, my friends, my family and (last week) even me, for the first time. British politicians may be forgiven for their lack of expertise in virology but should not be forgiven for failing to listen to experts.
Instead, some politicians argue that coronavirus is now endemic rather than pandemic, meaning – like colds and seasonal flu – we just have to get used to it. But redefining Covid-19 – just like redefining a heatwave – does not change the facts.
As Christina Pagel, the director of University College London’s Clinical Operational Research Unit points out: “endemic” is a word used by epidemiologists to refer to a disease that does not spread out of control in the absence of public health measures. Coronavirus may eventually fit that definition but it doesn’t right now. Nor is it certain that this or any other virus will evolve to become milder.
One other case of re-naming or re-defining something to attempt to change the problem is, inevitably, Brexit. Back in 2018 the then UK prime minister Theresa May suggested that after leaving the European Union, Britain could have what was nicknamed a Festival of Brexit, more formally the “Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” which would be a “nationwide festival in celebration of the creativity and innovation of the United Kingdom”. It was supposed to take its cue from the 1851 Great Exhibition or the 1951 post war Festival of Britain. The nickname "Festival of Brexit" was attached by the ardently pro-Brexit politician Jacob Rees-Mogg.
But anything branded as “Brexit” in Britain now has become synonymous with division, failure, new bureaucracies, increased costs and travel problems. For months public opinion polling has shown a majority of those expressing an opinion think Brexit was a mistake. Naturally, the festival organisers insist it has nothing to do with Brexit. They now call it Unboxed.
But although the name has changed the cost is still £120 million. The festival began last month, although I sincerely doubt if most British people have noticed. It will last until October with attractions including “See Monster”, a North Sea oil platform on display and “About Us” a light projection “celebrating our connection to everything around us – past, present and future.”
But boxed, unboxed, celebrating Brexit or celebrating nothing in particular, in a scathing report, Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said the festival’s lack of clear direction was a “recipe for failure” and an “irresponsible use of public money”. The same is true of Brexit itself, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson once described as a “Titanic success”.
Even so, Juliet’s lovely observation was correct. A rose by any other name does indeed smell as sweet, but a bad idea or a wrong-headed policy is not likely to be improved by a bit of judicious PR or a name change. A heatwave is still a heatwave. Coronavirus is still a major health hazard. Oh, and the Titanic sank at sea in 1912 after hitting the reality known as an iceberg.