Government must clearly communicate Covid rule changes, say psychologists

If the public is to feel confident about the easing of Covid rules, then governments must explain clearly why the restrictions are no longer necessary, psychologists have said.

Using nuanced language, acknowledging uncertainty and being empathetic are important, their research suggested.

Most people support most public health decisions made on Covid, a study found.

And the UK public is likely to take Covid less seriously once restrictions are lifted, it suggested.

Polls showed huge support for the third national lockdown last winter and majority support for the government’s decision to delay the final step of easing restrictions in June.

But a study by psychologists from the universities of Cardiff, Bath and Essex said there was little understanding of how people reached their positions on these issues.

“The public may treat future public health threats relatively less seriously,
independent of their actual severity.”

‘It must be bad’

Psychologists found the introduction of lockdown itself was a primary reason why so many people were willing to abide by the rules from the start.

“In other words, they thought ‘it must be bad if government’s taking such drastic measures’,” said lead author Dr Colin Foad.

Based on a survey of 212 members of the public six months apart, the study found people’s views were much more complex than polls suggested – but they were often over-simplified.

The researchers said this issue was “magnified by the polarisation of media coverage”.

For example, participants in the study supported lockdown – but they also recognised it carried costly side effects and were unsure whether or not they were an acceptable trade-off.

Dr Foad, from Cardiff University, said it was important to understand that people were “hugely conflicted”.

“We need to communicate more of the complexity and nuance in people’s positions,” he added.

‘Use empathy’

The study noted that people judged the threat of Covid-19 from the policy response to it at a general level – for example by the introduction of lockdowns – rather than their own personal risk from the virus.

But these expectations can change and that creates challenges.

“The public may treat future public health threats relatively less seriously, independent of their actual severity,” the study said.

Dr Foad said his advice to governments would be to recognise that no policy suits everyone and to acknowledge that nothing is perfect when communicating new decisions.

“Avoid binary language, say ‘we are worried…’ and use more of an empathetic voice,” he added.

He said the average person would think the threat had reduced greatly if restrictions were being lifted, but there would always be far more extreme opinions on social media and voiced by journalists.

The study is published in Royal Society Open Science.

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