In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson locked the country down on 23 March 2020. The government communication slogan was ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. The aim of the messaging was to scare people into complying. It worked. It may have worked too well. We need to find a new way to decide on what we do and don’t do as lockdowns relax. The narrative of fear isn’t working anymore.
The fear message may have worked too well. As the country began to unlock in May, opinion surveys found that around 40% of people were scared to leave their homes. A month later, the figures had not changed much, with 41% of adults say they did not leave their home on five or more of the previous seven days
This fear narrative became problematic in later stages. In June, when some school classes and some businesses were allowed to reopen in the UK, the government tried to reassure the public that this was now safe, so long as social distancing was maintained.
There was also intense pressure from business to reduce the social distancing guideline from two metres to one. The reasons are obvious. Most restaurants and pubs cannot operate profitably at the greater distance, but might be able to reopen with the shorter distancing. The government continued to say it was following the science. But there is no science that says two metres is safe while one is unsafe. The only guidance the scientific advisers could offer was about relative risk. Two metres is safer than one (about twice as safe), but if the rate of infection is low enough, one metre may be an acceptable risk. The right social distancing is a political, not a scientific, decision
A narrative of risk
Another approach was possible, but not taken. This was to focus on giving people advice about risk. People don’t readily grasp data about risk. It’s alien to our normal way of thinking. But it’s not complicated. We take calculated risks all the time. For example, we drive cars even though we know there’s a risk of dying in a car crash. That risk in the UK is, in fact around one in 20,000 per year
Here are some rough calculations of risk for coronavirus in early June 2020, compared with other risks. Reducing social distancing to 1 metre doubles the risk of infection, while wearing a facemask reduces the risk at this distance by 14.3%. At the infection level present in the middle of 2020, the risk of infection was one in 1,666, and the average risk of dying one person in 1.66 million.