UK scientists urge more restrictive behavioural measures in Britain in the fight against coronavirus, and question the UK Government’s strategy.

First published in March 2020.

• Over 200 scientists from UK universities have written to Number 10 urging the UK Government to introduce tougher measures to tackle the spread of the coronavirus.

• In the meantime, the French Government has ordered the closure of all non-essential public locations from Saturday midnight, and the Spanish Government has declared a 15-day national lockdown with immediate effect.

Open Letter 1 | Open Letter 2

Public request to take stronger measures of social distancing across the UK with immediate effect.

As scientists living and working in the UK, we would like to express our concern about the course of action announced by the Government on 12th March 2020 regarding the Coronavirus outbreak. In particular, we are deeply preoccupied by the timeline of the proposed plan, which aims at delaying social distancing measures even further.

The current data about the number of infections in the UK is in line with the growth curves already observed in other countries, including Italy, Spain, France, and Germany. The same data suggests that the number of infected will be in the order of dozens of thousands within a few days.

Under unconstrained growth, this outbreak will affect millions of people in the next few weeks. This will most probably put the NHS at serious risk of not being able to cope with the flow of patients needing intensive care, as the number of ICU beds in the UK is not larger than that available in other neighbouring countries with a similar population. Going for “herd immunity” at this point does not seem a viable option, as this will put NHS at an even stronger level of stress, risking many more lives than necessary.

By putting in place social distancing measures now, the growth can be slowed down dramatically, and thousands of lives can be spared. We consider the social distancing measures taken as of today as insufficient, and we believe that additional and more restrictive measures should be taken immediately, as it is already happening in other countries across the world.

We urge anyone who has sympathy with our views, and access to the government strategy group, to make our concerns more widely known.

Open letter to the UK Government regarding COVID-19 – by UK Behavioural Scientists.

We are writing as behavioural scientists to express concern about the timing of UK delay measures involving social distancing. As is clear from the disaster unfolding in Italy, there is a unique window for delaying the spread of COVID-19. Current government thinking seems to crucially involve the idea of “behavioural fatigue”. This is the worry that, if implemented too early, measures limiting social contact will be undercut just at the point at which they are most required, because people will have tired of the limitations and will revert to prior behaviour – in part precisely because those measures are effective in reducing spread and hence perceived risk.

While we fully support an evidence-based approach to policy that draws on behavioural science, we are not convinced that enough is known about “behavioural fatigue” or to what extent these insights apply to the current exceptional circumstances. Such evidence is necessary if we are to base a high-risk public health strategy on it. In fact, it seems likely that even those essential behaviour changes that are presently required (e.g., handwashing) will receive far greater uptake the more urgent the situation is perceived to be. “Carrying on as normal” for as long as possible undercuts that urgency.

More broadly, it appears that concerns about behavioural fatigue lead the government to believe that halting the spread of the disease is impossible, and the only solution is to slow the progress of the disease across most of the population, until herd immunity is achieved. But radical behaviour change may be able to do much better than this, and would, if successful, save very large numbers of lives. Experience in China and South Korea is sufficiently encouraging to suggest that this possibility should at least be attempted.

If “behavioural fatigue” truly represents a key factor in the government’s decision to delay high-visibility interventions, we urge the government to share an adequate evidence base in support of that decision. If one is lacking, we urge the government to reconsider these decisions.

[This piece was originally published on the Queen Mary University of London website and the Google website, and re-published in PMP Magazine on 14 March 2020. | The authors write in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Number 10/Andrew Parsons. - The Prime Minister Boris Johnson talking to the Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock (left) and England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty (Right) on the stairs of Number 10 Downing Street. | 12 March 2020. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)