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A Sage Adviser Says The Government Has Sent The Wrong Message To People By Relaxing Coronavirus Rules At Christmas

6 min read

A Sage adviser says the government has sent the wrong message to people by relaxing Coronavirus rules at Christmas, saying it has given people the false idea it is safe to meet up with others.

Professor Steven Reicher told PoliticsHome he believed that last month's announcement that three households would be allowed to meet up for the festive period had sent the wrong message to the public.

“The strongest message you have is in your policies,” Reicher said. 

 “What the rules have done, is message that it's okay to meet up when it clearly isn't in terms of public health.”

It comes after the Prime Minister sought to toughen up the guidance on Christmas bubbles after calls for the rules to be looked at again, as Covid-19 cases continue to rise.

There has been criticism directed at Number 10 for announcing the unlocking of measures between 23 and 27 December almost a month before Christmas, and the suggestion the policy was based on the belief that if stricter rules were kept in place people would disregard them.

The justification for the government’s relaxed rules over Christmas despite the rising cases appears ever more difficult to pin down.

One minister suggested the rules had been based on behavioural factors and the public’s mental health, rather than the case numbers.

They told PoliticsHome: "In terms of a consistent approach if you are solely aiming to bear down on the virus why would you have five days easing off? If you are only going to take the health advice in isolation, you wouldn't risk creating a spike.”

“That's the challenge with this. Because there's a mental health element to this and it's also a matter of compassion and understanding.  Many people will be tempted to do their own thing anyway so it's a matter of achieving a difficult balance including personal responsibility."

Mr Johnson himself appeared to admit non-compliance was a factor in the policy, telling a Downing Street press conference on November 26: “You've got to strike a balance between people's strong desire to celebrate a family holiday, perhaps one of the most important family holidays of the year - which they frankly are going to do anyway - and the need to keep the virus under control.”

Speaking to PolHome Professor Reicher, who sits on the SPI-B panel advising Sage on behavioural issues, said: “That's one of the arguments that is made, that we have to roll with it because if we stay rigid then then we'll just lose control - that was the argument.”

He said YouGov polling showed before the announcement about Christmas 16% of people said they were planning to meet up with others, but afterwards that rose to 40%.

Prof Reicher, who researches the issues of group behaviour at St Andrews University, added: “Now, of course, you can't say that will be entirely due to the announcement itself, it could have been that people were making their mind up and more would have anyway, but it does nonetheless suggest that it may have been.

“Not that the relaxation was in response to large numbers of people planning to meet up, but it actually caused it. 

He added: “When people talk about messaging, the strongest message you have is in your policies, because everybody knows the policies, not everybody hears the messaging around them. 

“So if you say to people, in effect, it's okay to meet up to give them permission to meet up, it's not too much of a stretch to infer that 'well, it's okay, it's fine, it's safe', that's a fairly easy slippage. 

“And I think the problem is, we haven't messaged clearly enough, that no, it's not safe.”

On whether it is wrong to try and make policies based on the idea of non compliance, he said:  “I think throughout the pandemic there has been a notion of psychological frailty of the public, which has misinformed policy. 

“I say misinformed because I think it has been very damaging. So at the beginning, we had all this stuff about behavioural fatigue - not coming from behavioural scientists - that we needed to delay lockdown, because people can only put up with it for so long. 

"And then everybody was taken aback by the levels of compliance with the restrictions.”

He said there has been high compliance with all the rules except for self-isolation, which is because it's practically and financially difficult.

“So in other words, instead of berating people and wagging your finger at them, you support them,” he said.

“I think one of the problems is that government has taken a stance of blaming individuals for their psychological frailty and ticking them off and threatening them with punishment when it would be far more effective to provide support.

“Not only would you make it possible, you would motivate people by making them think that government is on their side. So again, those notions of frailty turned out to be false. 

There have been joint calls by the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal to change the rules, which Mr Johnson has rejected in favour of tougher messaging.

Prof Reicher said it has been a problem “all the way through that we've focused on rules, not risks”, and the government hasn’t explained why the rules have been made.

“That's why it was so daft of Matt Hancock to talk about ‘stick the rules’ - if everybody sticks to the three household rule, we are deep in trouble,” Prof Reicher explained.

“The point is to say 'look, we're going to be given a bit of flexibility for exceptional cases, but if you're not an exceptional case, it really doesn't make sense', and then help people, give them the information they need to make an informed choice. 

“And to understand why for them it doesn't make sense for them to take advantage of that flexibility.”

A senior government source suggested it had been clear throughout the pandemic that the majority of people comply with the Covid-19 rules when they are set out but that a very small minority do not.

Decisions that feed into the Christmas rules are based on a “wide range of evidence based policy making”, they suggested.

The Prime Minister's official spokesperson was asked specifically if the government had any data to show that the public would flout the rules over Christmas had they remained in place.

He said: “More broadly…we continue with medical advice and listen to medical professionals and scientists as we have done throughout the pandemic to inform the decisions we take.”

“We’ve always been clear we want allow families to meet up,” he said.

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