People won’t get ‘tired’ of social distancing – and it’s unscientific to suggest otherwise | Nick Chater | Opinion

In times of national crisis, governments need to act, advise and inform. But they also need to tell stories that allow us, as citizens, to understand government policy and, crucially, to coordinate our individual efforts towards a common goal.

The story isn’t just “spin”; it is a central component of policy. And whether it receives our support will be critical to determining whether, and how well, the policy is implemented, and whether it succeeds or fails. Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech that he gave in 1940 during the Battle of France perfectly encapsulated a clear narrative of collective resistance at a time of national peril. What should the story be now?

Two very different approaches are being deployed by governments across the world. Covid-19 is either a fire than must be beaten back, or even completely extinguished; or a rising tide against which resistance is futile and managed retreat is the only option.

The fire narrative is implicit in the lockdown policies already in place in many affected countries, such as China, South Korea, Italy and Spain. The more a fire takes hold, the harder it is to fight, meaning fast, aggressive action is vital. Continual vigilance is required: each new flame must be extinguished. Crucially, putting out the fire takes precedence over everything else, lest the fire burns unchecked. Collective and individual sacrifice isn’t merely justified – it’s an overwhelming necessity.

The tide narrative, implicit in the UK’s current plans, is very different: the progress of the virus is seen as an unstoppable wave that will overwhelm temporary defences. In this metaphor, the endpoint is clear: most people (perhaps 60% to 80%) will be infected by the virus, until the point of “herd immunity” is reached, when new infections peter out. The only question then will be how best to manage this process: for example, trying to slow, and evenly spread, the flow of new cases over the summer months when the health system is under less strain; and trying to ensure that the elderly and vulnerable are isolated while the infection rages through the population.

Policymakers should be asking three questions: which narrative is right?; which narratives are politically sustainable?; and in the light of uncertainties over the first two questions, what is the best course of action?

The first question is an ongoing debate among epidemiologists and public health experts, and outside my expertise as a behavioural scientist. China and South Korea seem to have dampened the “fire” with astonishing success. We don’t yet know how European countries will fare. And we don’t yet know whether coronavirus will surge again as restrictions are loosened, although the signs in China at present seem encouraging.

The UK government has made much of the danger of “behavioural fatigue”: that people will not be able to maintain new patterns of vigilant behaviour for very long. If this is a primary reason for assuming the virus cannot be stopped, it seems a very unconvincing one (as a recent open letter to the UK government, of which I was a signatory, points out). But behavioural fatigue, to my knowledge, has no basis in science. Indeed, with a compelling collective narrative, people are capable of maintaining remarkable solidarity over months and years, especially at times of national crisis.

The second question about which narratives are politically sustainable depends on how far the narrative can build a new, shared, “social contract” that citizens will be willing to back. Politically speaking, the fire narrative is far easier to sign up to. Most of us can support a heroic vision of collectively battling an epidemic (or at least tamping it down until help arrives in the form of a vaccine or a cure).

The tide narrative is a harder sell: it requires society accepting that a huge burden of illness and death is inevitable; and, for that matter, the personal realisation that we will likely get sick. More crucially, perhaps, such fatalism will be very difficult to sustain while other nations are seen taking aggressive countermeasures. As soon as UK mortality statistics start to outrun those of other countries, the public pressure to shift strategy will be acute.

So what should the government do? Here, I think policymakers should allow for the possibility that scientists don’t yet know which narrative is right: whether covid-19 can be stopped, as the fire narrative suggests, or whether it’s an unassailable tide. The virus is new, and its behaviour is relatively unknown. But a huge global scientific and medical effort is under way to understand the genetics, mutation and transmission of the virus, to model its spread, to learn from the experience of other countries, and to explore the viability of vaccines or cures.

The government’s bet that the virus is unstoppable – and its decision to allow it to spread through the population over the summer – is a move that, if misjudged, could lead to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

A basic principle of good decision-making under extreme uncertainty is to make choices that are robust to whichever narrative turns out to be right. Right now, surely policymakers need to buy time; and that means slowing the spread as much as possible, while we learn more.

The most honest and credible narrative is surely to admit our ignorance: that the government doesn’t, and can’t, know yet what is best. In the meantime, we should hold back the virus with every resource we have, until the science around it is clearer. I would like to believe that, as a nation of pragmatists, this is a story we can all get behind.

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