Boris Johnson’s decision to include dates in his proposed roadmap out of the third lockdown in England is a “dangerous strategy” that risks undermining adherence to Covid-19 rules, behavioural scientists have said.
The prime minister’s message that government policy around reopening would be guided by “data, not dates” could be overshadowed by the use of dates in the roadmap, said Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of SPI-B, the behavioural science subgroup of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
“Data not dates has turned into dates not data,” said Reicher, who added that the choice of Midsummer Day for a possible return to normality was “incredibly powerful symbolic messaging”. “Because, whatever you say, once you announce clear dates you create facts on the ground which alter the reality, and create a situation [where] it’s very difficult to shift from those dates,” he said.
Proof that people were already using the dates to plan was seen in the huge surge in holidaybookings and the announcement of events such as the Reading and Leeds festival, he said. Using dates created psychological, economic and political “counter-pressures” that would make changing dates increasingly difficult, he said.
Once expectation had been established it was damaging to remove it, he said. “It gives hope if you can stick to those dates; if you don’t it brings despair. And it’s a dangerous strategy.”
Relying solely on the vaccine deployment to curb transmission was a very serious mistake, added Reicher. “When you have high levels of transmission, the virus is more able to replicate,” he said. “The more the virus replicates, the higher chance of getting mutations; the more mutations, the higher the chance of a variant which evades the vaccine – and then they’ve undermined the vaccine.”
Prof Susan Michie, who also sits on SPI-B, said that while the first two mooted dates were “in a timescale that could be predicted”, the reopening of all schools against some scientific advice and the emergence of new variants meant there was too much uncertainty to predict beyond March. “Yet again [Johnson] is raising expectations that may be dashed,” she said. “And yes, again, he calls it a roadmap but it’s still not a coherent strategy.”
She welcomed the five-week gap between the reopening stages, but said the four tests that had to be met to allow each stage to happen were “vague” and involved no quantitative criteria. “This mixed messaging is deeply unhelpful,” she said. “People want clear, consistent coherent messaging.”
Asked if the public was receiving such messaging, she said: “Unfortunately not, no.”
Robert West, a Sage member and professor of health psychology at University College London, said there was definitely a risk that people would become “demob happy” and bend rules in advance of specific dates. While it was unlikely to influence mask-wearing and other protective measures, it could result in more “contacts with others, either outside or inside, which are very, very hard to police”.
Even though the public had been told not to plan around the outlined dates, they would invariably do so, said West. “And the government knows that – it’s not like it doesn’t have any behavioural advisers.”
Dr Daisy Fancourt, who leads University College London’s Covid-19 social study into the psychological and social impact of the pandemic, said compliance with rules had been “incredibly high” and at its highest in recent months. The challenge as the country reopened would be whether people would understand what they were allowed to do, she said.
“The times we found compliance going down have been when the rules have been relaxed,” she said. “We saw that very clearly, for example, at the end of the first lockdown last year, because the implicit message is that things are not as serious.
“But the problem is that infection levels are still really high, hospitalisation levels are still really high. So it’s going to be a case of trying to make sure that people don’t mistakenly think that the situation is in fact, a good one.”
She said it was vital the government rolled out a comprehensive communications plan that reached people at community level “to ensure that the messages are getting out to everybody, rather than just a core few”.
John Drury, a professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex, who is also on SPI-B, said vaccinations were “not infallible” and not everyone would be vaccinated, meaning infection suppression measures – including providing financial support to enable people to self-isolate – were still incredibly important.
Earlier this month, Dido Harding, the head of NHS test and trace, said that between 20% and 40% of people contacted by test and trace could not or did not comply with the rules. Research suggests a majority of people who apply for a one-off £500 payment for isolation are rejected. “People need information, but also they need material support,” Drury said.
Reicher accused the government of a failure not only of messaging but of policy. “The other mitigations are being forgotten about – we’re not talking about test and trace, about supporting people to self-isolate, making environments safe and ensuring the places aren’t open if they’re unsafe, we’re not talking about making sure that employers allow people to stay at home and work from home if they possibly can. We don’t have a strategy of infection suppression,” he said.
“We should be combining the vaccine rollout with suppression. To rely on one without the other is a risky way to go. They might get away with it, and of course we all hope they will. Because if they don’t, we’re the ones who are going to suffer.”
The government has been contacted for comment.