Covid measures give us choice. They are not restrictions on British life

The government, ignoring the science, talks of freedom. But true liberty comes from cutting infections so people feel safe. Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science wrote on The Guardian today 

Calls for the government to introduce extra measures to contain Covid have grown louder. At the last count these came from the NHS Federation, the British Medical Association, Macmillan Cancer, the behaviours and modelling subcommittees of the emergency science group Sage, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, regional public health directors and metropolitan mayors. Yet the government has responded by saying it sees no need for restrictions, and that it is opposed to lockdown in all forms. Reicher gives opinion in his written by following messages

What is telling here is not only the decision not to act, but the way in which the government’s framing of the issues serves to justify that decision. Covid measures are characterised as Covid restrictions or even a lockdown. Those calling for action can thereby be characterised as fanatics who want to remove our liberty while the government presents itself as defender of our freedoms, preserving “normality”.

This has been an effective strategy. After all, who wants lockdown? Almost daily I am asked by journalists whether people will accept new Covid restrictions.

So in response to all those queries: if I had to list the most important new measures necessary to supplement vaccines and bring infections down, this is what they would be: to ensure adequate ventilation of all indoor public spaces, which can mitigate the effect of even mass indoor gatherings on infection spread; and to limit the number of contacts people have through measures based on protection rather than restriction – because if you double contacts, you double the number of people we are each likely to infect or be infected by. As the Immensa lab scandal showed, it’s very harmful when large numbers of infected people continue to circulate in the community.

Regarding ventilation, I would institute a system whereby all public spaces were required to indicate their “clean air” status, just as kitchens in restaurants are required to indicate their hygiene status. I would also improve the messaging so that people know how important it is and how to know when they are safe. This wouldn’t amount to a restriction. It’s a protection.

In order to limit social contacts, I would give people the choice to work from home where possible. Studies of mixing show that we had on average 11 or 12 contacts a day pre-pandemic. In the spring of this year, that went as low as three. It then crept up to four in the summer, and now stands at about five. But this isn’t because of people socialising more. It’s largely down to people mixing at work, whether they want to or not. Obviously, working from home isn’t possible for everyone. But give people the option.

Finally,  I would provide comprehensive support for people to stay at home: adequate financial support, support with hotel accommodation for those in crowded, multi-generational households, practical support (if one has caring responsibilities for instance, or needs the dog walked), and emotional support.

What I would also suggest is that it’s unhelpful for the discussion of a “plan B” to focus on such measures as mask-wearing and to characterise the plan as being about restriction – or, worse, about lockdown.

What we need right now, to supplement the vaccine rollout, is a set of protections and support measures to reduce the harm inflicted by Covid and relieve pressure on the NHS. In order to make that clear, politicians and journalists need to reframe the way they talk about the pandemic. Stop asking: will the public stick to the restrictions? Instead ask: will the government protect and support the public to keep one another other safe?

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