Britain has been drilled to comply with lockdown under a future pandemic through wearing face masks and working from home, the Chief Executive of the Government ‘nudge unit’ has said. The Telegraph has the story.
Professor David Halpern told the Telegraph that the country had “practised the drill” of wearing face masks and working from home and “could redo it” in a future crisis.
Last Tuesday, Matt Hancock told the public inquiry that Britain must be ready to combat future disease outbreaks with wider, earlier and more stringent lockdowns.
Speaking on the Lockdown Files podcast, the Government adviser Prof. Halpern predicted that the country would comply with another ‘stay at home’ order because they “kind of know what the drill is”.
In an interview given before Mr. Hancock’s testimony, the leading behavioural scientist even suggested that the nation’s prior experience made it “much easier to now imagine” the population would accept future local restrictions.
Prof. Halpern said that while fear-based messaging in general is not effective, he defended its use in extreme circumstances.
“There are times when you do need to cut through… particularly if you think people are wrongly calibrated,” he said.
The suggestion that Britain might be primed to accept further social-distancing restrictions is likely to alarm lockdown-sceptics concerned by the collateral damage such measures cause.
When the pandemic hit, Mr Hancock’s department enlisted the professor’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – better known as the ‘nudge unit’ – to provide them with “frictionless access to behavioural expertise”, according to a £1 million contract.
BIT used earworm slogans such as ‘hands, face, space’ to maximise compliance with Covid rules.
In his most wide-ranging interview since March 2020, Prof Halpern explained that his unit’s campaigns were devised to help reinforce new behaviours.
He said their posters acted as visual prompts so that “when you go into a shop or somewhere else, it re-reminds you, it cues, it acts as a trigger for the behaviour”.
The professor said that this messaging encouraged mask-wearing, meaning people felt “naked” when they forgot to put one on.
“Put it this way,” he said. “You would feel like, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t got my mask’. You feel naked, right?”
Once the public has learnt a new behaviour, Prof. Halpern said: “In principle, you can switch it back on.”
“You’ve got the beginning, particularly, of what is called a habit loop: if this has happened, then you should do that,” he said.
Major disasters “leave this enduring trace on society”, he explained. As well as knowing the drill, this “quasi-evolutionary” impact is a strong indicator of future behaviour, he claimed.
Faced with another contagious disease, the professor predicted that the British public would start wearing masks again “relatively rapidly if they were persuaded”.
“They might protest, ‘do we really have to do it?’ [Showing] good healthy scepticism. But once you’ve exercised those muscles, they’re more likely to be reused again,” he said.
As a result, the British public – having learnt to work from home – would be more likely, he believed, to accept stay-at-home measures being used to clamp down on local outbreaks.
Worth reading in full.