The British government currently faces a tough question: should they prioritise the economy and keep businesses open, or should they prioritise safety and enforce a strict lockdown? Their ultimate responsibility is to the well-being of the people, but does that mean protecting the UK residents’ current health or their future prospects? It is a tough question, clouded in uncertainty.
Part of the issue is the limited amount of data. When 1000s of people were dying early in the pandemic, there was a moral imperative for the British government to do everything in their power to save lives. Now they find themselves once again in the situation of needing to curb the rapidly increasing rates of COVID-19. To stop the spread of the disease, the government will try to follow scientific advice. But it is difficult to know what prevention measures are the most effective, as when governments move quickly to save lives they put several measures in place at the same time. Would wearing masks alone be enough to stop the spread if everyone did it, or do restaurants have to control the space between their patrons as well?
At this point in history though, there are tools to pick out the best approaches. Based on just the data of this current pandemic, the government could look across at other countries to learn which measures have been successful. Regions such as Hong Kong and Australia have stemmed the flow of COVID-19 with swift surveillance techniques, quarantine measures and social distancing. The Global Response Index, created by foreignpolicy.com, shows that countries which implement measures quickly, make contingency plans early on, and have effective testing strategies have fared best. These are endeavours the British government should focus on, especially building testing capacity which, 6 months into the pandemic, is still lacking compared to many countries.
While building testing capacity sounds like a daunting task, this is an area where there are lessons to be learnt from others. Africa as a continent has struggled to obtain PPE that has been bought by wealthier countries, but international co-operation via the African CDC has enabled what has been available to be distributed effectively. African countries have also demonstrated incredible innovation with their resources. Ghana has used pool testing to increase their testing capacity (i.e., pooling samples from multiple people for a single test and only conducting individual tests when a positive result is found). Likewise, Senegal has created a test for coronavirus that works in 10 minutes and costs only 1USD.
Another lesson comes from Vietnam, which had a highly-effective communication strategy. The basic measures of washing hands, wearing face makes, and social distancing are very effective if everyone follows them. However, after 6 months of restrictions people are starting to fatigue and take small risks here and there. At the start of the pandemic it was very easy to walk around the supermarket as everyone was conscious and keeping their distance. Two days ago I for the first time asked someone at the supermarket check-out to keep their distance as they encroached on my space. But it wasn’t the first time I’d wanted to ask someone. As people fatigue the government could look at some of Vietnam’s methods for communicating and reminding people of the dangers.
My PhD looked at how energy companies learn after incidents. Something that is spoken about often in that context is risk normalisation. This concept is that is that when you work next to something dangerous everyday without experiencing any incidents, you start underestimating the danger involved with taking risks. You assume if you take a small risk here or there nothing will probably happen. Energy companies are very aware of this, which is one reason they invest so much in communicating about safety and incidents. Vietnam’s communication strategy probably had a similar effect.
There is a human aspect that must be factored into whatever the government decides to do. Many have gone 6 months following the rules, without actually experiencing any personal losses to the disease. Today the total number of people identified as having had COVID-19 in the UK is 618,000, which is less than 1% of the population. Even fewer people have had severe symptoms, and even fewer have died from it. People are starting to normalise the risk of getting COVID-19, seeing it as something that others in the news get, but not something they as an individual are likely to suffer from. But as the most recent outbreak in the US shows, those who do not show the virus enough respect are likely to become super-spreaders. The government needs to invest in its communication strategy and consider what guidelines are going to work given the current mindset of people. The support bubble system is one of the best parts of the government’s current regulations. If people have their basic needs for connection met, then they’re more likely to be able to follow the rules. This is something that the Dutch government understood early on.
The current British government continues to face incredibly difficult decisions. They must listen to the advice of scientists and follow the example of countries that deal well with coronavirus. Increasing testing capacity is definitely a must. However, the fatigue of people in the UK cannot be ignored when deciding how much to enforce with fines and how much to trust that people will act for the greater good. British people do care about others, but after 6 months of little consequence for the majority, it is easy to start taking small risks as there will most likely be no negative consequences. Am I really likely to spread coronavirus from one embrace with my parents? The problem is, if everyone in the country takes those small risks, then the virus will be spread quickly.
In the end, an investment in testing capacity and marketing campaigns might be the way to get around the need to decide whether to chose between people’s current health or future well-being. People want to do the right thing, but after 6 long months small reminders via marketing can help tip the balance when people need to make those split-second decisions about taking small risks. Larger testing capacity could also help people to connect in a safe way. Imagine that we each had one test that we could use every month. Before meeting my parents for a BBQ we could all take a test to elimate the risk. Instead of thinking about how to force people to do stay away from each other, the government needs to think about what people are experiencing and provide practical advice and resources to support people through this difficult time.