May 28, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Moving on and getting on with it

Phrasal verbs are interesting. You have verbs, like ‘move’ and ‘get’ for example. But you also have so-called phrasal verbs, verbs that are made up of a main verb together with an adverb or a preposition, or both, such as ‘move on’, in, out, over or ‘get on’, in, out, over etc., or even ‘move in on’ or ‘get on with’.

I remembered such verbs when thinking about two things: first, the Dominic Cummings affair and the government telling the populace to forget it and ‘move on’, and second, the track and trace system, introduced on 28 May.

In this context I was reading an article that showed how Germany just ‘got on’ with it – the tracking and tracing – as soon as they had their first case, and are still getting on with it now. No fuss, no rigmarole, no scandal.

Back to the scandal. If we had carried on with track and trace after March 12, the following would have happened. As soon as somebody in Cummings’ household had symptoms, they’d have been tested and the family and contacts would have been quarantined. If it had been Cummings himself who had the symptoms, this would probably have meant the whole cabinet would have had to go into quarantine. Nobody would have gone to Durham. Nobody would have broken lockdown rules or the spirit of the rules or guidance.

Now it’s too late, like so many things. The trip to Durham that should not have happened, even under the old rules, has happened and the new rules have come into effect too late to prevent it. But instead of collectively reflecting on this matter, the whole cabinet and the Prime Minister himself are saying that we should ‘move on’ from this affair and the rule-breaking involved and do our civic duty and follow the new rules.

Moving on

The Prime Minister, challenged about the Cummings affair during his interrogation by the Commons Liaison Committee on 27 May, said: “I totally understand public indignation, I totally understand that, but I do think that as I understand things, and I’ve said what I’ve said about the whole business, I think it would be much better if we could now move on and focus on the next steps.” And: “The best way to clarify the message and the best way for people to understand what we need to do next is for us all to move on and focus on what we are doing tomorrow.” (The Herald, 27 March) Tomorrow was the day when track and trace began.

As the BBC reported “The prime minister used the phrase ‘move on’ five times in 20 minutes, as he faced hostile questions from select committee chairs.” I doubt, however, that this repetition will improve the government’s message and people’s understanding of it. The message seems to be: breaking rules is allowed if you have power. Now move on, or rather: stay at home if you have to.

Boris Johnson was not the only one to ask people to move on. The phrase was used widely by officials. Rydale MP Kevin Hollinrake said “It is time to move on from this so we can all pull together to rebuild both our economy and our lives.” (Gazette & Herald, 27 May) Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami urged the public to “move on” from the Dominic Cummings saga, while admitting the government’s communication in the early stages of lockdown was “a failure” (The Comet, 27 May). Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, dismissed calls for Dominic Cummings to resign and defended the actions of the Prime Minister’s aide….”So my instinct is that now we move on and tackle other issues.” (Express, 27 May) And there were many more…all stressing the ‘we’ in ‘us’ moving on together or us pulling together, an apparently collective action of government and people.

Not only did many government officials want people to ‘move on’, they wanted to move on to something else, in the sense of talking about something else: “Several times, and in a somewhat impatient tone, Mr Hancock mentioned that he would very much like to move on and talk about other issues.” (The Daily Telegraph, 27 May).

But can people and should people move on, and should politicians just move on to the next topic?

A difficult journey

The phrasal verb ‘move on’ is often used by police officers trying to get people to move away from some crime scene or similar. “Nothing to see here, move on”. And yet, there is something to see here and people don’t want to move on until they know exactly what it is and know that something has been done about it. They also would like to know where to move on to from here. This will be difficult for thousands of people who can’t just drive to Barnard Castle….

In another blog post, written around Easter, I praised Dominic Raab for using ‘journey metaphors’ rather than ‘war metaphors’. This was, to use a journey metaphor, a step in the right direction, I thought. This seems a long time ago now. Since then our journey out of the lockdown has been a rough one and we are still not out of the woods. The journey was made even bumpier by the Cummings affair, as it has destroyed the trust needed for undertaking the journey together, as a joint effort between government and citizens.

In these circumstances, ‘moving on’ will be very difficult for many people. And what about the government? How is it getting on with making this journey easier: the track and trace system? How are they getting on? Not too well, it seems.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Posted in infectious diseasesLanguagePersonal Reflection