Morning analysis: The limits of the housefly on the urinal in a pandemic

“The World Health Organisation has declared Coronavirus a pandemic.”

THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION has declared Coronavirus a pandemic.

WHO chief Dr Ghebreyesus said that while some countries “lacked the resources” others “lacked the resolve” to tackle the outbreak. There had been “alarming levels of inaction,” he said, but added that “several countries have demonstrated that this virus can be suppressed and controlled.”

When looking at the slow-mover candidates, the UK is an obvious one. Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet Medical Journal, stated on Tuesday: “The UK Government—Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson—claim they are following the science. But that is not true. The evidence is clear. We need urgent implementation of social distancing and closure policies. The government is playing roulette with the public. This is a major error.”

Bloomberg reported yesterday that a part-private sector company, the Behavioural Insights Team, was running the UK Government’s response to Coronavirus, and were “taking a radically different approach” to that of China and Italy: “Instead of keeping people inside their homes, Boris Johnson’s government is trying to get inside their heads.” This approach draws on ‘nudge theory’: by encouraging people to change individual behaviours in ways which do not alter economic incentives, policy can be optimised without dramatic macro-changes. An often cited example of this is the image of a housefly on the ceramic of male urinals, which improves aim.

Ally nudge theory with Boris Johnson’s comments about finding “a balance”, and there is reason to worry. I’m sure behavioural science does have a role to play in this crisis, but it should be within frameworks set by public health experts. ‘Nudge theory’ became popular under David Cameron, when it was all the rage to talk about how to do ‘more with less’ in the age of austerity. That age appears to be over as of yesterday’s Budget, but that doesn’t mean the co-option of behavioural science to optimise government policies which are geared primarily around big business interests has gone away.

At a Cobra meeting this morning it is expected a move from a containment phase to “delay” will be confirmed, where government moves beyond ‘wash your hands’ nudge messaging towards social distancing measures. But questions will remain about whether it’s too little, and too late.

Picture courtesy of duncan c