October 20, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich


About a month ago, when I thought the government was about to announce a ‘circuit breaker’, I wrote a blog post about that metaphor. Now the Welsh government has announced a circuit breaker but has called it a ‘fire break’. That means that I now have to write a quick post about the ‘fire break’ or ‘firebreak’ metaphor.

Storms, floods and fires are primeval ways of thinking about the pandemic. About the latter Elena Semino writes: “Even out of context, forest fires are a suitable area of experience for metaphorical exploitation. They are vivid, or image-rich; they are familiar, even when not experienced directly; they have multiple elements (trees, fire-fighters, arsonists, victims, etc.); and they have strong evaluative and emotional associations.”

Elena wrote this at the beginning of the pandemic, but fire metaphors are still going strong. Just when I was starting to write this post I came across this ironic argument (tweet) against the Great Barrington Declaration: “All we have to do is 1) Prevent wildfires 2) without forest management 3) or deploying fire-fighting teams.”

One part of forest management and firefighting is the use of ‘firebreaks’, a strip of land in a wood or forest from which trees have been removed to prevent a fire from spreading.  In a pandemic the trees are us.

Firebreaks in Covid news

As usual, I asked myself how that metaphor was used in the media as a proxy for public discourse. I searched the news database Nexis for all English language news using the search string ‘fire break’ OR firebreak AND covid OR coronavirus and got over 6000 results. Of these a large proportion related to actual firebreaks in relation to wildfires in Australia, California etc. and about 700 reported on the recent announcement in Wales. I could, of course not analyse all these articles for one little blog post.

Skimming through the remaining articles, it became clear that firebreak had been used as soon as Western nations started to deal or not deal with the pandemic, namely as early as 11 February. A transcript from Good Morning Britain said: “An advantage coming up with half-term, if all these children are taken out of schools, warm environments running around together, potentially a very dangerous environment, it could act as a firebreak, parents keep their kids at home, they are not going out to catches, might want to do during half-term. It might help.” (Italics added)

A few days later, on 14 February, the term crops up in the US news (NPR Morning Edition) in the context of discussing pandemic preparedness and the military: “We envisioned the P3 platform [Pandemic Prevention Platform] actually functioning as a firebreak in the instance that there’s a pandemic outbreak. …. it’s something that will work, at least temporarily, to protect someone from contracting the virus before a vaccine is ready. It might also be a stopgap therapy if there’s nothing else available.”

A month later a rather rough transcript from BBC World News from 8 March said: when “we look back in history we ask what we’ve done in the past things like Sars for things like flu outbreaks what seems to work and then take a proportionate operation Italy said we’re gonna shut some of our schools we will shut our universities would do that for a certain period of time and hoping that will create viral equivalent of a fire break where basically you rob the virus so many people it can infect […] you’re slowing down the rate” (italics added).

About ten days later, on 17 March, the phrase pops up in the United States. In an interview (Lou Dobbs Tonight), the surgeon general talks about fifteen days to slow the spread of the disease and the interviewer says: “And those steps are critical. A 15 day plan. Is that — is that in your judgment adequate for us to create if you will a fire break of — between Americans and the continued contagion by this disease”? (Italics added)

Firebreak meats circuit breaker

As early as 12 June there was talk of using a firebreak in Wales, when the Education Minister Kirsty Williams said “’You have my guarantee that I will also extend the autumn half term to be a two-week break’…. ‘Doing this still gives us a summer break -what scientists have described as a ‘natural fire-break‘ between school terms as we continue to monitor reduced transmission and developments here and across the world.’” (Wales Online, italics added)

Then there is a bit of a summer lull until 18 September when the metaphor of firebreak collides with that of circuit breaker. Both terms were repeatedly used by Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister for Scotland. She said “She [Sturgeon] said: ‘The coming days are likely to see some hard but necessary decisions. If we want to avoid another full-scale lockdown, doing nothing is almost certainly not an option.’ She likened the coming changes to a ‘circuit breaker’ or ‘fire break’ designed to interrupt the spread of the virus, and ultimately reverse what she called a “deteriorating situation”. She stressed she was not contemplating a return to the full-lock seen at the start of the pandemic, but changes designed to prevent a return to that.” (Herald Scotland, italics added)

As I reported in my post on circuit breaker, Boris Johnson himself used the two words as quasi-synonyms around that time. I had written that he used another “metaphor in conjunction with the circuit breaker one, namely that of a short ‘fire break’ (Manchester Evening News, 18 September).” I added: “That metaphor too was later abandoned, although, in my view, it was quite a good one.” I wish he had stuck with it and the policy that it denotes.

Not everybody was happy with Johnson’s circuit breaker analogy, as this letter to the editor demonstrates, where an astute analogy spotter said: “It’s a small, small fish in the ocean of his incompetence but the PM cannot even get his analogies right. A pandemic most definitely does not require a ‘circuit break’, it requires a fire break. The latter has a chance of preventing further spread; the former just halts proceedings for exactly the time that the circuit is broken then starts up as before…” (The Independent, 21 September, italics added)

The Welsh firebreak

Unlike England, Wales stuck with the firebreak metaphor and about a month later, on 19 October, Mark Drakeford the Welsh First minister announced a ‘fire break lockdown’, ‘fire break measures’, a ‘time-limited fire break’ as a ‘short, sharp shock’ to people’s lives (in many newspapers) – and to mix metaphors a bit, this was apparently used to ‘reset the virus’ at a lower level (Wales online). As Express Online said on 19 October: “A fire-break lockdown is the same as a circuit breaker lockdown”. However, I agree with the letter writer quoted earlier, the two metaphors are not quite equivalent. ‘Circuit breaker’ evokes top down action, while firebreak could at least to some extent evoke bottom up action…. Both are needed urgently.

The basic message of the fire breaker metaphor is: Stay at home, as much as you can. Don’t be a tree!

Image: Firebreak (Harz, Germany), Wikimedia Commons










Posted in infectious diseasesMetaphors