Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Behavioural Science and the UK’s Initial Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic

Adam Oliver

Nickolay Romensky

In the early stages of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, much was made of, and much criticism was directed at, the advisory input from behavioural scientists. However, less notice was taken of the fact that some of the advice offered by behavioural scientists (or seemingly, just one behavioural scientist – David Halpern – who for some reason was the public face of behavioural science in advising the Government) was not actually behavioural science at all.

This advice was seemingly instrumental in the Government adopting a relatively soft approach in the early stages, relying on the public voluntarily to behave responsibly and thus eschewing, at least for a while, a hard lockdown. The behavioural scientists advising the Government justified this approach on two grounds:

  1. A delay in a hard lockdown would allow sufficient herd immunity to build up within the population, and this would be necessary if the country was to avoid a second spike in coronavirus infection once any lockdown was ended. Admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, we now know that it would have taken an awful long time for sufficient herd immunity to arrive (and the number of deaths that would have occurred in the meantime would have made the already catastrophic figures seem modest); indeed, herd immunity may never have been achieved, given that there is not even yet sufficient scientific evidence to suggest that having been infected with the coronavirus offers immunity from reinfection. However, this is an aside from the main point that I would like to make in this short piece, which is that herd immunity is not a concept that originated in behavioural science: it is an old public health concept.
  2. The second justification for a delay compared to many (although by no means all) other countries was that people would, after a while, become tired of being locked down – i.e. that they would suffer from behavioural fatigue, would become restless and, after a while, would protest and react against a lockdown. Thus, to protect the NHS, the advice was to introduce a hard lockdown at the optimum moment, as it would be possible to lock people down for only so long, and therefore it was important not to do it too soon. Otherwise, the threat from the virus would not have sufficiently passed before an exit from lockdown became too difficult to further delay. Other behavioural scientists objected to this line of argument (and a great many behavioural scientists objected to the Government’s delay), arguing that although people may get bored with having to stay at home, behavioural fatigue is not ‘a thing’. However, whatever the semantics used, people do become tired of outside infringements on their personal lifestyle choices, and being locked down is, for many, physically and mentally demanding (and even dangerous, in all sorts of ways). There are signs that people are starting to get tired of being locked down in the UK and elsewhere; the behavioural fatigue argument was, to my mind, not misplaced.

To finish, Sweden, often viewed as an outlier with respect to its coronavirus policy response, has adopted an approach that is very similar to the Johnson Government’s early strategy, and Sweden’s approach is expert – as opposed to politician – led (albeit the experts in question are epidemiologists rather than behavioural scientists). In a year or so’s time, when the dust has settled, it will be enlightening to attempt to discern which strategy was the right one to take.

Featured photo credit: Nickolay Romensky

The Origins of Behavioural Public Policy by Adam Oliver
The Origins of Behavioural Public Policy by Adam Oliver

About The Author

Adam Oliver

Adam Oliver is a Reader in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He teaches behavioural economics and behavioural public policy, ...

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