What’s wrong with the UK’s approach to coronavirus

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
- Advertisement -

Given the risks inherent in its strategy, the government’s failure to effectively communicate is a real problem.

LIVERPOOL, England — I did not expect to get the reaction I did when I wrote a Twitter thread last Friday spelling out my interpretation of what the British government is trying to do in its fight against the coronavirus.

I don’t work for the government. I have no inside knowledge. I’ve studied antimicrobial resistance and how people behave in crises, but I’m a psychologist, not a doctor or an epidemiologist. My tweets were based on what Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said on television.

And yet, within hours my thread had been retweeted tens of thousands of times, reaching hundreds of thousands of people. I was being asked by parents what they should do about their asthmatic children (speak to your general practitioner), and doctors were telling me it was the first time they had understood what the government’s strategy might be.

I found it quite concerning that tweets written by a psychologist while making dinner had become an important source of information for so many people. Even more worrying, the fact that my thread had such resonance shows something important: that the British government is failing to properly communicate its approach to fighting the epidemic.

Rather than close down the country, with mass quarantines and social isolation, the U.K. is trying to manage the epidemic.

Given the risks inherent in the strategy it has chosen to adopt, that’s a real problem.

The U.K.’s approach is different from nearly every other government’s. Rather than move to quickly close down the country, with mass quarantines and social isolation, the U.K. tried to manage the epidemic — controlling the infection rate by gradually increasing or relaxing control measures.

The aim appears to be to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed and allow the economy to continue to function — while allowing the virus to work its way through the healthiest parts of the population.

The theory, which is controversial, holds that countries that have adopted harsher measures will remain vulnerable to the virus flaring up again. The U.K., by contrast, will have built up so-called herd immunity, where enough of the population has caught the virus, recovered and developed some immunity that it’s unlikely to find a foothold in the country again.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson | Pool photo by Simon Dawson/Getty Images

If the British approach works, it could both save lives and spare the economy. It’s a strategy that’s not without risks. And one that in the short-term could result in a larger death toll than that undergone by countries that moved to a shut down more quickly.

Making it work also relies on the government being able to clearly communicate what it’s doing, so it can change people’s behavior as the epidemic progresses. And so far, the signs are not reassuring.

For a government that has convinced people that Brexit is a good idea, and that the Conservatives are the party of the people, its performance in this crisis has been poor.

The research that colleagues and I have done on how people behave during life-threatening events like fires shows that they act in three broad stages. First, they evaluate what is going on, gathering and interpreting information. Then, they decide what they are going to do. Then they act.

The British public is in the process of moving from Stage One to Stage Two. This is a moment when the government has a crucial role to play in effectively communicating information. People need to know what they will be required to do, what the risks involved are, and when they should act.

The government may have tried to communicate these things, but the message hasn’t gone through.

Johnson has created an affable, joking persona. He is probably not the best person to deliver serious and sincere messages.

In the absence of information, people will latch onto any information that seems to make sense, regardless of who is expressing it. That is dangerous, especially with so much potential misinformation and lies on social media.

Nor are graphs and curves getting the messages across. For those of us used to working with data and statistics every day, they make a lot of sense. But there remains a widespread perception among the public that the British approach is a poor one and that the government is doing nothing, especially compared with other nations.

Remedying this will require a clear, authoritative communicator. So far, the government has lacked one.

Johnson has created an affable, joking persona. He is probably not the best person to deliver serious and sincere messages.

The government’s excellent chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser appear to be doing a good job of shaping the strategy, but they might not be the best people to communicate it.

People might remember Ian McDonald, the civil servant who served as spokesperson for the ministry of defense during the Falklands conflict.

If the government’s approach is to work, they will have to find a trustable, convincing civil servant like him to help the British public understand the role it is being asked to play — and the risks it is being asked to take.

Ian Donald is an emeritus professor of psychological sciences at the University of Liverpool.


εισάγετε το σχόλιό σας!
παρακαλώ εισάγετε το όνομά σας εδώ

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Διαβάστε ακόμα

Stay Connected

2,900ΥποστηρικτέςΚάντε Like
30,200ΣυνδρομητέςΓίνετε συνδρομητής
- Advertisement -

Τελευταία Άρθρα