Clear messaging is key to any campaign, especially if you want people to behave in a certain way. Graphic images of damaged lungs have been put on packets of cigarettes, and you rarely see a role model lighting up. The message is clear: smoking is extremely bad for you.
At the eve of moving from mandatory to discretionary COVID advice across many countries, people are being asked to assess the risk and use their own judgement. Many people have been calling for this shift to put the onus of responsibility on the individual already for a longer period of time. The trouble is, unless the messaging around this is very clear, it creates uncertainty, societal tensions and we know that individuals find it very difficult to assess risk.
When COVID-19 restrictions were eased last year in the UK, data from multiple sources (YouGov, Facebook, Ipsos Moiri, CCTC) showed a sharp drop from 66% to around 17% between May to September/October 2021 in people reporting others wearing face coverings, particularly after the July 19 ‘freedom day’. There were also declines in people avoiding contact and physical distancing. Under conditions of uncertainty, there can also be a new divide into risk takers and the risk averse, who are more cautious.
But, when new changes are announced that deeply affect our everyday life, such as those announced yesterday by the Prime Minister, the first thing people will ask is what has changed and why? What yardstick is used to evaluate the change on February 21? What is the scientific evidence or threshold behind the changes? We know hospital admissions are down and cases have fallen within the last weeks, yet ONS still reports relatively high levels of infection (1 in 19 in England) – especially in certain places such as schools.
The suggestion that requirements to isolate after a positive test will be scrapped, leaves the public wondering what they need to do. Previous advice would suggest that people who are ill with the flu or COVID would still need to stay at home, but clarity on testing and sick pay would be essential to enable them to do so. We know that presenteeism, pressure from work or financial reasons may still compel many to work when ill.
We also know from previous cross-nationally comparative research that in countries where trust in government is high (i.e., perceptions of being well-organised, consistent messaging, following scientific advice), there is a higher adoption of health measures. Conversely, when trust is low, engagement with advice is also low.
The Wellcome Global Monitor also consistently shows that people place more trust in medical, health and scientific experts. Clear consistent messaging is now essential – and the optics and the messenger are important. Many countries are entering into a new phase of living with COVID and moving away from central government to advice from public health bodies, backed by scientific evidence. Yet the rules of the game have not yet been specified.
By Professor Melinda Mills, Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford. Professor Mills participates in multiple COVID advisory groups in the UK and European Commission but writes in a personal capacity.