'People won't know exactly what to do': new "stay alert" message risks causing confusion, Lancashire human behaviour expert says

The government’s revised lockdown message risks leaving people “not knowing quite what they’re supposed to do”.

By Paul Faulkner
Monday, 11th May 2020, 7:42 pm

That is the assessment of a Lancashire academic who specialises in how humans respond when faced with a threat to their survival.

Dr. Sarita Robinson last week told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the public information campaign to accompany any phased lifting of lockdown restrictions needed to be “clear and comprehensible”.

But after the Prime Minister took the first tentative steps down that road on Sunday, the University of Central Lancashire psychology lecturer warned that the government’s new “stay alert” slogan risks causing confusion.

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Dr. Sarita Robinson, principal lecturer in school of psychology at the University of Central Lancashire

The modifications announced by Boris Johnson to the blanket “stay at home” policy, which has characterised the government approach for the last seven weeks, were minimal – with unlimited outdoor exercise and public sunbathing to be permitted from Wednesday. Separately, it was confirmed that a socially-distanced meeting with one other person in the open air will also be allowed.

“Nothing has really changed, but everything has changed – and I worry that it’s not very clear and could just create a load of uncertainty and anxiety,” said Dr. Robinson.

“The original message seemed to resonate with people – we all know how to stay at home.

“From a psychological point of view, there are also some other subtle changes, such as the use of a green border on the new logo. Green is for go, green is safe – it’s not a warning or message to stop like red was [on the previous incarnation].”

Under the “stay alert” banner, people are still advised to stay at home “as much as possible” and work from home – but are now being actively encouraged to return to work where home-working is not practical. Good hand hygiene and maintaining a two-metre distance from others remain a key part of the message.

“It’s quite difficult for people to understand what it means to stay alert by staying at home or by washing their hands – the message doesn’t quite flow. So you end up with people trying to use their best judgement,” Dr. Robinson explains.

“There are also some apparent conflicts, because the Prime Minister suggested it was safe to go to work [if you can’t work from home], but not on public transport. So people may wonder why it’s safe to be in a workplace but not on a bus.

“And some of us still feel awkward about social distancing – nobody has learned what the etiquette is. If somebody sits one and a half metres away from you in a park, are you going to be that confident in telling them to move?

“This is a very different situation 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.

“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, that rule did, of course, come heavily caveated.

Not only were there some 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 is not contingent on age – but how many people over 70 believe that they automatically fault 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 have already been having to make their own assessments of what action it is sensible for them to take. But Dr. Robinson 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 judgments 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 on powdered milk and have to make our own bread. Whereas a friend of mine popped to the shop for some basil. People have different interpretations of essential. “

The need for nuance in government messaging is likely to increase whenever the further phased lockdown changes alluded to by the Prime Minister are made, given that they are not all going to be lifted at the same time.

According to Dr. Robinson, 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.

“It’s about repeating the message often and having the checklists which people can go and look at -and it 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 inevitably 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,” Dr. Robinson says.

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

The “stay at home” message which has governed our lives for nearly two months may have been a demanding request– but it may soon seem reassuringly simple as we begin to negotiate whatever comes next.