"Clear and comprehensible": Lancashire academic on how any lockdown-lifting messages should be communicated

It will be difficult to communicate the clear public information messages needed to implement any phased lifting of the coronavirus lockdown, according to a Lancashire expert in human behaviour.

Saturday, 9th May 2020, 12:05 am
Updated Sunday, 10th May 2020, 12:04 am

Dr. Sarita Robinson, principal lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, says that the messaging for later phases of the Covid-19 response – whenever they come – will necessarily be more subtle than the blanket “stay at home” mantra which has characterised the government campaign being run for the last seven weeks.

Press speculation has reached fever pitch in recent days that a planned statement by the Prime Minister on Sunday will see him unveil a staged exit strategy from the lockdown, even if no immediate changes are made to the current restrictions.

First secretary of state Dominic Raab has since said any relaxation will be “modest”, amid reports that number 10 was trying to regain control of a message which has largely been adhered to – but appeared to risk fraying in the face of heightened expectations that the government’s stance might be about to shift.

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Dr. Sarita Robinson specialises in human behaviour in survival situations (image: University of Central Lancashire)

“The trick here is that we’re not telling people that everything is over and it’s safe to go back to normal,” explains Sarita, who specialises in human responses to survival situations.

“This is a very different scenario to something like a hurricane, because it’s not like we’ve had a disaster and are now in post-disaster recovery – it’s ongoing.

“The message will have to be subtle – it’s about saying that the way we lived before isn’t going to work at the moment, but we’ve got to try to adapt and have a new normal.

“You have to remember that when you communicate that message to people, their understanding of it will be really different. Some people will be really risk averse and will need a lot of reassurance, while others will go into some kind of denial state where they’ll think ‘it won’t happen to me’.”

In spite of the apparent simplicity of the stay at home message deployed since the lockdown began, the rule did, of course, come heavily caveated.

Not only were there four specific reasons which justified leaving the house – such as essential shopping and work which could not be done from home – there were also a whole series of detailed guidelines about what individual groups of people were advised to do within the context of the wider restrictions.

These have sometimes risked resulting in misconceptions. For instance, the so-called “shielded” list of 1.5 million people who were told not to leave the house until the end of June, is based entirely on their categorisation as individuals with certain conditions which make them “clinically extremely vulnerable”.

The shielded category has nothing to do with age – but how many people over 70 believe that they automatically fall into this group by default? They may, quite sensibly, have decided for themselves to follow the same restrictions as the shielded group – but have not officially been placed in it.

The over-70s are actually part of a category advised to be “particularly stringent” in following broader social distancing measures by minimising contact with those outside their own household. Along with people with a range of conditions not deemed severe enough to put them in the shielded group, the over-70s are considered at “increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus” [re-named "clinically vulnerable people" as of 1st May].

This means that many more people than it might first appear are having to make their own assessments of what action it is sensible for them to take. But Sarita says that should not come as a surprise.

“There are risks everywhere and this is about everybody’s risk perception and what’s acceptable to them.

“People are making their own judgements all the time about the current situation – for instance, with the definition of essential shopping.

“What’s essential? I haven’t been shopping for six weeks, because we had enough food in the house – although we are now on powdered milk and have to make our own bread. Whereas a friend of mine popped to the shop the other day for some basil. People have different interpretations of essential.“

The need for nuance in government messaging is likely to increase whenever any changes to the lockdown restrictions are made, given that they are not going to be lifted at the same time. Existing social distancing and hygiene guidance will also pay an ongoing part.

According to Sarita, that makes forthcoming public information campaigns even more important – but challenging to execute.

“It has to be simple, clear and truthful – and it has to be comprehensible, people have to understand what they’re being asked to do. For instance, I still have no idea about what I’m allowed to do with exercise – can I drive somewhere or not?

“It’s about repeating the message often and having checklists which people can go and look at – and the message must not contradict itself.”

So is it even possible to launch the most important public information campaign of many of our lifetimes when it will unavoidably be defined by mixed messages?

“Yes – but it needs to come from trustworthy figures who follow their own rules. That’s why they brought the Queen out right at the start of all this,” Sarita says.

“However, you have to remember that you can communicate the message, but getting people to understand and follow that set of instructions is something very different.”

But as things stand, of course, the main message remains the same – stay at home.

And that may seem reassuringly simple when we are trying to negotiate whatever comes next.