The writer, a Harvard senior fellow, advises the UK Department of Health and Social Care
Walking my youngest child to school each morning, I notice that I am holding on to the little things. We talk about the conkers on the trees, what he will eat for lunch. We rarely stray beyond today and tomorrow.
The UK government’s slogan is to “Stay alert” against coronavirus. Frankly, I’m so alert I may spontaneously combust, leaving nothing on the pavement but a half-empty bottle of hand sanitiser.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes he has found a middle way between saving jobs and saving lives, by imposing new restrictions while stopping short of a second lockdown. This is shock without the awe: an attempt to bludgeon the minority into compliance, without crippling the economy.
While sensible in theory, in practice there is a real risk that the minority will ignore the message, while the docile majority will be terrified into spending even less, pushing the economy into a doom loop.
If Britain were the bolshie, rule-breaking nation ministers assumed we were back in March, it might make sense to be unveiling graphs of doom, spreading rumours about cancelling Christmas and lecturing pubgoers about drinking in “the last chance saloon”.
On Tuesday chief scientist Patrick Vallance presented the public with an extraordinary graph projecting 50,000 daily new Covid infections by mid-October. This, he was forced to admit, was not actually a prediction. The point was to try and scare people into changing behaviour: stop households mixing and large groups socialising indoors, the two most potent sources of virus spread.
But most people in the UK have turned out to be incredibly anxious about the virus, with thousands reporting their neighbours for the slightest infraction. In July, a month when the sun shone and hospitals were normal, one poll found 60 per cent of Britons saying they wouldn’t feel comfortable in a bar or restaurant. In another, nearly 80 per cent said they would welcome a second lockdown if there was a second virus spike.
The government’s challenge isn’t just to keep deaths low by curbing rowdy behaviour, it is also to keep spirits up in the group which is barely going out. Fear is a natural response to a pandemic. But if messaging makes people increasingly phobic, the impact on their mental health will be appalling, and their anxiety will ricochet through the economy.
Will the new measures slow viral transmission by curbing the recalcitrant, the students who want to congregate or the shop assistants who are reluctant to wear face masks?
Some behavioural research suggests that once people identify as rule-breakers they will simply break more rules; this phenomenon was seen in the 2000s after antisocial behaviour orders were introduced. Other studies suggest that people are more likely to make sacrifices if they think that others will suffer as a result of their actions. Young people were understandably upset by being urged “don’t kill gran”. Yet that message may prove more effective than sending marshals into house parties.
The truth is that coronavirus represents a giant experiment in human psychology, and the behaviourists need to get as much of a hearing as the medics.
For businesses, “stop-go” policies take a financial toll. Even the most breezy entrepreneurs do not have infinite resilience. Many small businesses have burnt through their working capital. They had been stumbling on, fending off landlords with a sense of light at the end of the tunnel. Now, some are on the verge of giving up.
The other noises don’t help. Earlier this week, we were treated to the cheering image of 7,000 lorries potentially queueing in Kent after Brexit. A September 1 survey of captains of industry found two-thirds saying they expect the UK economy to get worse over the next 12 months. Half expect that barriers to trade and tariffs for their products and services will rise after leaving the EU, and 48 per cent expect investment in Britain to fall. The least ministers could do would be to help truckers put in place the right paperwork.
The day after Mr Johnson imposed the restrictions, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, mistakenly suggested that you would no longer be able to queue at the counter at McDonald’s and Pret A Manger. This was later corrected. But it piled unnecessary uncertainty on to an already fraught situation.
One of my greatest fears has been that confidence will plummet, once every family knows someone who has lost their job. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s unexpectedly generous jobs package has made that less likely in the immediate future. But he cannot magic up that most precious commodity, confidence. Consumer spending was already slowing down in early September, and the Treasury fears the fourth quarter will be very weak.
Mandarins should ask behaviourists what makes people feel secure, and which are the environments where they feel safe splashing cash. Huge effort has gone into making offices Covid-secure.
Some local authorities have already suspended bylaws that prevent restaurants from pushing out on to pavements and roads, making eating out glorious. As winter looms, why not pay for tarpaulins and heaters so that people can continue to eat outdoors, where the risk of transmission is lower. Such things can restore a sense of control, which is vital to curbing panic.
None of this is easy. But as Mr Sunak said, “Our lives can no longer be put on hold.” Ministers must realise that public anxiety can be as contagious as a virus. We need to stay alert, but not fall apart.