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Plus ca change?

Empty streets in London during the lockdown
British Museum

Gus O’Donnell Frontier Economics

Governments face two difficult policy challenges: first how to manage the transition out of lockdown and, second what would an ideal “new normal” look like, and can they help bring this about.

Managing the Transition from Lockdown

There is a crying need for behavioural insights to manage the transition. The UK government has achieved amazing compliance with its simple message about staying at home, saving lives and protecting the National Health Service (NHS), but the compliance level is already fading. Now they need a more nuanced message reflecting the overarching need to keep the R level below 1, while easing the restrictions. And many are now so frightened that they may be unwilling to return to work. How do we get out the facts about risks from different behaviours? Clearly there is a need for much greater behavioural input into devising the exit strategy, yet groups like the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) seem to be short of such expertise.

Achieving the “new normal”

There is also a compelling case for incorporating behavioural insights into the achievement of a “new normal”. But let’s start with what is likely to happen as opposed to what we would like to happen. My starting position is that nothing will change. People, with all their behavioural quirks, made certain choices before so why wouldn’t they return to them after the virus has gone, or been rendered safe by treatments and a vaccine?

Behavioural approaches then let us refine this starting point. First, some defaults might have changed: people have signed up to Netflix or online food shopping and may decide either consciously to continue, as they have learned the benefits of something different, or inertia means they never cancel the online subscription. On the learning side we may see a rise in home working as employers and employees realise the attractions and new skills have been learned e g how to operate Microsoft Teams or Zoom. These effects may start off quite large but might diminish over time.
Social connections have been forged

How long will new behaviours last?

People’s behaviour may have changed because they believe the risks have changed. So fewer handshakes, less flights and cruises, but again, over time these effects might diminish if the perceived risks return to prior levels. Community spirit has gone up despite what I regard as a behavioural error, namely using the phrase social distancing when what matters is physical distancing (Actually we need social togetherness not distance). To the extent that neighbours have met for the first time, that social connections have been forged, there may be some extra neighbourliness at first. Again I am not sure how long this will last. People may have realised that helping others raises their own wellbeing so there is a chance that some of the change will be long lasting. Searching for examples  of hysteresis post the virus will be a rich vein for research.
What about governments? The lockdown has been the most severe restriction on individual behaviour in my lifetime. Even during the Second World War many pubs and restaurants remained open. Will this tempt governments to be more willing to impose radical changes to behaviour? I think that it  will only do so if they expect that people understand and support the reasons for the restrictions. Indeed it is doubtful if they would work without public support. So might we see governments impose restrictions to halt climate change? I doubt it because the threat is still seen as some way off, and “not my problem”. My advice to climate change activists, and I very much support their objectives, is to find ways to make people appreciate the real risks to themselves and their children of returning to “normal” and the need for action now. This will not be easy. But perhaps we can learn from behaviour changes during the lockdown. Everyone needs food so shopping is essential. We found ways to make supermarket shopping much safer. Can we find ways for people to get what they want without the damaging climate effects? People have shown they will happily queue up, which is clearly costly, to stay safe . Will they be prepared to take more time in other aspects of their lives to reduce their carbon footprint, eg trains vs planes?

Will wellbeing now guide policy?

Finally I hope this crisis will make governments analyse the impact of decisions on the wellbeing of the people. A number of us showed how such a framework could be built and used. One clear result of this work is that it is very difficult to explain the use of such a severe lockdown purely in terms of the wellbeing years saved using the value of a QALY used by NICE. A much higher figure is implied by the government’s actions. I suspect that the answer lies with the politics: deaths from coronavirus are very immediate and visible and this takes precedence over less direct effects including deaths resulting from the reallocation of health resources to tackling the virus. The slogan about not letting the NHS be overwhelmed referred only to COVID cases and missed the reality that many treatments have been delayed at, as yet, unknown cost.
This crisis has had dramatic effects on people’s subjective wellbeing.  The lockdown has been twice as bad as being made redundant according to recent analysis. The latest figures from the UK Office for National Statisitics show big increases in anxiety, the proportion reporting low happiness has doubled from Q4 and life satisfaction is down significantly. Perhaps finally researchers will realise the importance of having these statistics collected by the ONS and will incorporate them into their analysis.
Whilst many aspects of life may revert to “normal”, the COVID crisis has shone a spotlight on the essentials of life and the determinants of wellbeing. If these are better incorporated into public policy then the “new normal” may well be better than the old.
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