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12 March 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:18am

Why aren’t we on lockdown for coronavirus yet?

The government is under fire for its approach. Here's what it's thinking.

By Ailbhe Rea

As Boris Johnson this evening announced that coronavirus is “the worst public health crisis for a generation” and warned, soberingly, that many families will lose loved ones before their time, many watching will have wondered why the government isn’t doing more to contain the virus’s spread. Why aren’t we closing schools, banning mass gatherings and ordering everyone to self-isolate?

The answer is that the government is simply being led by science. As we move into the second, “delay”, phase of the virus’s spread, it isn’t certain, for example, that closing all schools, although effective in curbing the spread of flu, would be effective in containing Covid-19 at this stage. Schools would need to be closed for months for the measure to be effective, and it would come with the increased risk that children might pass the virus onto their grandparents, who in many cases would be entrusted with looking after their grandchildren. “We are not closing schools now, the scientific advice is this could do more harm than good,” Boris Johnson said this evening, adding that the evidence is under constant review. 

As for banning mass gatherings, this is only a relevant consideration at this stage in terms of increasing security capacity. The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced this evening that gatherings of 500 people and over will be cancelled in Scotland from next week, a measure designed to reduce the impact on emergency services, such as the policing and ambulance services required for major sporting fixtures. This is not specifically to prevent the spread of the virus. We know that coronavirus is spread by being within two metres of an infected person for 15 minutes, so a contaminated person’s attendance at a large gathering would still only pose a risk to those in their close vicinity – they wouldn’t pose a risk to the entire stadium at a football match, for example.

The government has now advised people with even mild symptoms to stay at home for seven days. But why not everyone? Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said this evening: “If you move too early [with containment measures], people get fatigued. This is a long haul.”

Underpinning the UK government’s approach is the advice of a little-known group of advisers who are experts in behavioural psychology: the behavioural insights team. This “nudge unit”, as it is widely known, was established by David Cameron a decade ago to apply nudge theory within government: that is, to apply the latest scholarship in influencing group and individual behaviour to policymaking. It continues to advise the government even though it now operates as a separate organisation, while still part-owned by the Cabinet Office. 

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The unit’s advice is all about really works in influencing human behaviour. To take a simple example from the government’s coronavirus responses, the prevalence of experts like Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, chief scientific officer, is not an arbitrary move to ease the load on Boris Johnson or simply to look good. Rather, as the Behavioural Insights Team website states, “One ‘messenger effect’ consideration especially relevant [in the response to coronavirus] is that doctors and scientists are the two most trusted professions in Britain. Politicians and government ministers meanwhile are among the least.” In other words, the best way to ensure people follow government advice is to have it delivered by those in the most trusted professions, rather than by a politician alone.

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The sense that people will “fatigue” of self-isolation measures is another one of these behavioural insights. It may be hard for some members of the public to swallow, but the government is being guided by evidence that suggests that people wouldn’t stick to self-isolation for more than a few weeks. If the peak of the virus in the UK is not due to happen for weeks, or, at the upper end of the estimate, for even three months, the government’s decision not to lockdown the country is wise and important: such a move would carry the risk that people would start to ignore the measures, just when they will be needed the most. For many, however, the approach will seem to be a gamble, and one that other countries are not willing to take.