As confusion over whether people should really be travelling to “amber list” countries grew earlier this month, Boris Johnson stressed that his government was trying to move away from “endlessly legislating everything” to relying on guidance and trusting the public to do the right thing.
This vague messaging approach, scientists say, has been a persistent feature of the Covid response in England – to the public’s detriment – and now risks exacerbating a rise in Covid cases as people across the country gear up to travel to see their friends and family over the bank holiday. The continued risks of catching and spreading coronavirus haven’t been sufficiently explained to the public.
“The more contact people have with each other and the more that is across communities, the rising transmission will increase more steeply,” said Susan Michie, director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London and a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science. She added that – given the uncertainty surrounding the impact the new variant first detected in India would have on hospitalisations – advising caution in precise rather than general terms would be helpful.
It’s like Groundhog Day – this has happened time and time again, said Stephen Reicher, a member of the behavioural science group that advises Sage, and a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews. One of the first obvious examples of vague and mixed messaging was last year, when the government went from the relatively unambiguous “stay at home” message to “stay alert”, he said.. “How do you stay alert to a virus? What does it actually mean?"
Another example was the government’s “hands, face, space” campaign, which was heavily criticised by scientists for placing insufficient emphasis on ventilation. Despite the slogan being changed to “hands, face, space and fresh air” in late March 2021, Michie said that government survey data showed that most people still did not understand the importance of ventilation.
Despite rising cases of the variant first detected in India, when the third stage of the reopening roadmap permitted international travel, ministers asked holidaymakers to be cautious, but not many people were actually listening to the announcements, said Reicher.
“The politician only says it once, whereas every time you pass a travel agent, every time you see an advert and every time you hear a friend’s going abroad, that sends you a message: that if we can travel internationally, surely things can’t be that bad!
“Actually, the message that people are getting, on the whole, is that it’s all over and done with, we’re all OK. And the one big factor which undermines adherence is a sense of low risk.”
Over the course of the pandemic, the majority of people have been adhering to Covid rules, said Robert West, a professor of health psychology at UCL’s institute of epidemiology and health, who sits on the advisory group on behavioural science for Sage. But when the regulations turn into suggestions or guidance, Egli ha detto, “more people will take risks than they otherwise would have”.
As more people get vaccinated, and the beginning of the end of the pandemic is within sight, it does make sense to give people more control over their lives, but it is the government’s responsibility to give the people the tools to do their own risk assessments, the scientists stressed.
“These are basic things, but where is the consistent government messaging on it? It’s not there!” said Michie. “There needs to be a focus on the key things that people can do to reduce the risk for themselves and others. But that’s a different thing than dumping responsibility on people.”