September 25, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Dimmer switches and circuit breakers

Since the beginning of this pandemic I have been writing blog posts charting the metaphors used to think and talk about it. Most of these metaphors are based on well-known experiences of floods, storms, wars and journeys – or air, water, earth and fire. However, I have recently noticed some other metaphors which are a step removed from these elementary metaphors, as they are grounded in our more indirect knowledge of mechanical devices or machines. Today I will discuss two of these mechanical metaphors, namely that of the ‘dimmer switch’ and the ‘circuit breaker’.

The dimmer switch metaphor has been widely used in the United States, but not in the United Kingdom, it seems. The circuit breaker metaphor was, for a short time, used in the UK, but has been used more extensively and systematically in Singapore. It is now mooted in Sweden.

I have dipped very randomly into the press coverage using these metaphors, using the newspaper database LexisNexis.

Dimmer switch

I can’t review here the ups and many downs of the US response to the pandemic. For that you should go to The Atlantic and read Ed Yong’s articles. California was the first state to introduce stay-at-home or lockdown measures which initially helped to bring the outbreak under control. The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, then lifted the lockdown and introduced a different tactic which he called a ‘dimmer switch’. He first used that metaphor in, I think, April this year. Here is an example of how that was reported:

“The Democratic governor said during a news briefing that people’s adherence to the stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines should be credited for the ‘bend in the curve’, a description that applies to the graphical images showing the track of the pandemic. Newsom said, ‘The models have changed because of your behavior. This will not be a permanent state.’ He then discussed plans for how the measures for containing the coronavirus could be modified as the situation evolves, comparing it to a dimmer switch as opposed to an on/off switch.” (Newstex Blogs, April 15)

It is interesting to see a governor actually praising people’s behaviour, rather than blaming people. That is refreshing.

At the end of June, The New York Times used the dimmer switch metaphor again, while highlighting the difficulties faced by the governor and by California, its counties and its people, a difficulty that is at least acknowledged, again something rather refreshing: “One major challenge is tailoring responses to the huge variety of conditions driving infections across the state” (New York Times, 30 June, 2020).

The dimmer switch metaphor captures some of these difficulties but not all. Overall though, it’s a good metaphor. Almost everybody knows what a dimmer switch is. This makes it easy to visualise and understand how modulating the pandemic using that ‘switch’ would help, by, for example increasing and enforcing some types of restrictions rather than others, in certain locations and at certain levels of intensity. It also conveys human agency and human responsibility.

Circuit breaker

In recent days we had heard a lot about ‘circuit breakers’ or ‘circuit breaks’ that are supposed to be implemented instead of full national lockdowns and instead of many local lockdowns. However, as things turned out, the Prime Minister did not use that metaphor in his House of Commons address and his address to the nation on 22 September. It is not totally clear why. It might nevertheless be instructive to look at how the metaphor was used, for a while, in the UK. This might give some clues about why it was abandoned.

What is a circuit breaker? Unlike dimmer switches, we sort of know what they are but we don’t really experience them in everyday life. According to the Oxford Languages definition on Google, it means “an automatic device for stopping the flow of current in an electric circuit as a safety measure”. One can imagine an engineer putting a circuit breaker into a system so that it automatically shuts down when it, say, overheats. Once the circuit breaker is installed, human agency is removed from how the system operates – it operates automatically. And, importantly, it helps to prevent bad things happening. It has positive connotations, unlike the concept of ‘lockdown’ which has mainly negative, punitive, ones.

When I rummaged around in the media coverage, I found three interesting nuggets of information regarding the use of this concept to regulate human life rather than a machine. For me at least these were new nuggets.

A market metaphor

The first nugget was that the metaphor of the circuit breaker has been used for a long time in market parlance. Here is its definition:

“A circuit breaker is a kind of regulatory measure that is used to temporarily halt all trading on an exchange. Circuit breakers are in place to curb panic-selling. They are used both in broad market indexes, such as the S&P 500, as well as for individual securities. They exist in the United States, as well as in other countries around the world.”

The term can also be used to conceptualise the resetting of consumer habits.

A behavioural metaphor

The second nugget was that this term was used as early as March this year by the Behavioural Insights Team that advises government on the pandemic. An interesting nugget of information contained within that nugget is the total focus on cleaning and hygiene rather than social distancing early on in the pandemic:

“First the basics of the problem. There is no getting away from it: it’s snot. It is stuff coming out of your nose and mouth and then, in the technical jargon, ‘going ballistic’.

It settles on surfaces, and then you put your hand on it, and then put your hand in your eyes, nose, mouth or all three, and bingo. So one option in the fight against this potentially deadly virus is to hammer home the message that coughs and sneezes spread diseases, and another is to stop it ending up in your mouth.

And that’s where the nudge unit comes in. Trying to find easy-to-communicate ‘circuit breaks’ to the spread of this virus. As Halpern tells me: ‘Behaviour spreads through a population like a virus.’” (The Times, 11 March)

A metaphor used in Singapore

The third and final nugget, which is, I think rather better known (it was mentioned in The Guardian), is that Singapore used the circuit breaker metaphor in April this year to successfully suppress its outbreak of Covid-19.

As the Wikipedia entry on this measure points out: “The 2020 Singapore circuit breaker measures, abbreviated as CB, was a stay-at-home order and cordon sanitaire implemented as a preventive measure by the Government of Singapore in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the country on 7 April 2020.” The measures were tightened on 21 April and relaxed on 2 May. “Three phases of planned reopening were announced on 19 May, namely “Safe Reopening” (phase 1), “Safe Transition” (phase 2) and finally “Safe Nation” (phase 3); the third phase will last until an effective treatment or vaccine is found to stop the spread of COVID-19. Phase 1 started on 2 June, while Phase 2 started on 19 June, and remains in force as of September 2020.”

On 15 of April we can read in Channel NewsAsia for example:

“Intermittent rounds of circuit breakers may be needed until a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, a panel of experts has said. While Singapore is trying to contain the spread of the coronavirus in the short term, more circuit breaker periods may be needed until a vaccine is found, said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore (NUS). ‘It will have to be a series of tapping on the brakes … once every three to four months, we may have to have a circuit break just to allow the health system to recuperate,’ he said” (Channel NewsAsia, 15 April).

Here we have an interesting overlap between the metaphor of the circuit breaker and that of putting on or tapping on the brakes. This sounds like top-down action by the government, just like lockdown, but the circuit break metaphor was received quite differently in Singapore, as described in a blog post by Maitreyee Patki:

“Semiotically, a ‘circuit breaker’ signifies a somewhat democratic approach to curbing the spread of the virus. All of us, coming together to break the circuit, slow down and eventually stop the spread. Now unlike a ‘circuit breaker’, a ‘lockdown’ has a certain power dynamic to it. It has come to mean something that is imposed top down, a unilateral decision taken by authorities in-charge rather than a democratic decision arrived at together as a community.”

This might provide a hint as to why Boris Johnson abandoned that metaphor in his announcements on 22 September. But he also did not use the word lockdown. Trying to be less authoritarian perhaps but not really democratic?

A metaphor (not) used in the UK

Now, in the UK, we did not start with a circuit break but with a lockdown, which many experienced as ‘house arrest’, imposed by the government. The government now wants to avoid ‘a second lockdown’ and initially explored the concept of ‘circuit breaker’, which would have “involved a two-week long national lockdown in which certain businesses would be regulated or closed” (The Scotsman, 21 September, 2020).

The Sun reported on 19 September: “BRITAIN may face on-off lockdowns for SIX MONTHS as the PM is set to announce a two-week ‘circuit breaker’ to tackle the ongoing pandemic.” It also called it a “mini-lockdown” (20 September, 2020). The Daily Telegraph talked about “a second ‘circuit-breaker’ national lockdown” (20 September, 2020). Perhaps that emerging semantic cross-contamination between ‘lockdown’ and ‘circuit breaker’ was seen as too dangerous and unpalatable by government communication people?

Such negative connotations also show through this quote talking about a ‘clampdown’: “Both [Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon] are considering so-called circuit breaker measures – a quick, temporary clampdown – to halt the spike in cases.” (Scottish Express, 19 September)

A day earlier, Boris Johnson had also used another more elementary metaphor in conjunction with the circuit breaker one, namely that of a short ‘fire break’ (Manchester Evening News, 18 September). That metaphor too was later abandoned, although, in my view, it was quite a good one.

In the end no metaphor was used, just an idiom: ‘a stitch in time saves nine’…. which has not a lot of performative power. Lot’s of people googled its meaning after Boris Johnson used it. According to the BBC it means: “it’s better to solve a problem right away, to stop it becoming a much bigger one.” The restrictions introduced under that banner were rather weak. We have to see what they can do in terms of breaking the circuit of disease transmission.


In this post I have looked at two mechanical metaphors deployed during the pandemic and conceptualising disease management.

The dimmer switch metaphor was, it seems, almost exclusively used in the United States. It is a useful metaphor that lets us think about modulating pandemic policy actions in response to temporal and local variations in disease spread. It highlights human agency and responsibility.

The circuit breaker metaphor was used successfully in Singapore. It encapsulated many policy actions that in other countries were covered by the more draconian and authoritarian sounding ‘lockdown’ but seems to have avoided these connotations, thus increasing trust between the population and policy makers. The concept was initially mooted as a possible way of responding to a rise in cases in the UK. However, here the semantic proximity to ‘lockdown’ was probably a factor why the government, wanting to avoid being seen as imposing a second lockdown, abandoned the concept in the end.

PS 14 October: As circuit breakers are in the news again, William Burns posted a wonderful explanation by Gan Kim Yong, a Singaporean electrical engineer, of what a circuit breaker is and what it does!!

Image: Circuit breakers and other electrical controls in the engine room of the WWII design Britsh submarine HMS Alliance, Angus Kirk Flickr

Posted in infectious diseasesMetaphors