Masks, vaccines and ‘Plan B’: Can comms tackle creeping COVID-19 complacency?

As new cases of COVID-19 in the UK passed 50,000 a day last week – the highest levels since January – with related deaths and hospitalisations also rising, pressure is building on the Government to take urgent steps or else be forced into taking even more stringent measures later this autumn.

Voluntary mask wearing on the London Underground is low (pic credit: Getty)
Voluntary mask wearing on the London Underground is low (pic credit: Getty)

Senior voices in the NHS, the Science Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and opposition politicians have called for the urgent implementation of ‘Plan B’, which would mean the reintroduction of mandatory mask-wearing and working from home where possible.

Meanwhile, the vaccination programme – once regarded as the most effective element of the Government’s response to the pandemic – appears to have stalled in comparison to those in other countries and its early successes feel like a distant memory.

But perhaps the biggest enemy to public health, as the country faces the hard winter to come, is a creeping sense of complacency.

Voluntary mask-wearing on public transport is low, while some of those who have had two doses of the vaccine behave as if they can neither catch the virus, nor transmit it to others.

Elements of the public seem to regard the pandemic as being in the past, despite the emergence of new and highly-transmissible variants of COVID-19, while others are simply battle-weary after more than 18 months of living through it and no longer care.

Against this backdrop of growing complacency and government inaction, what role can comms play in getting the country back on track?

Daniel Reynolds, director of comms at the NHS Confederation

Daniel Reynolds
Daniel Reynolds

The danger of success is that it can breed complacency and we are seeing this now with the Government’s handling of the pandemic.

After leading one of the world’s most successful rollouts of the vaccine, our immunity levels are starting to wane, and the Health Secretary predicts COVID-19 cases could hit 100,000 a day.

Against this backdrop, the Government is resisting calls to reintroduce mask-wearing and there is at best ambiguous messaging when it comes to how we should behave when mixing in public.

The Government has lost focus and quickly needs to regain it.

The first, much-needed, step is for the Government to go back to the national campaign it led earlier this year to boost take-up of the vaccine. This needs to be focused on the five million UK adults who remain unvaccinated, and on the booster jab, where only just over half of those eligible have had the vaccine.

We also need to see consistent public health messaging which urges the public to return to the behaviours – mask-wearing, washing hands regularly and maintaining social distancing – that kept the virus under a semblance of control.

The vaccine offered us a way out of the pandemic, but low uptake of the booster jab and complacent public health messaging risks plunging us back into crisis.

Jo Spadaccino, co-founder of Stirred Health

Jo Spadaccino
Jo Spadaccino

After a relatively harmonious, yet brief, period when those holding influential positions in the COVID-19 management strategy agreed on the approach, we have returned to the realm of deep discord. Cue those with polarising views and the platforms to fire them up, leaving the middle majority confused and, this time, also significantly more battle weary.

While there is undoubtedly still a critical job to do to ensure that vaccination take-up does not stall, as per the Government’s latest communications, it is so single-minded that it sends a message to vaccinated people that they’ve done their part and can now rest easy and enjoy their hard-earned freedoms.

Many will now have ‘lived experience’ of COVID infection in their household, which in the majority of cases will not have ended up in hospitalisation.

Meanwhile, we have a Government which is reticent to act as the ‘fun police’ and isn’t role modelling the behaviours it is advocating, such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

We run the risk of the perfect breeding ground for both apathy and resistance, which is not the ideal preparation for a potential step change in measures.

Like many health interventions, the key to success is having clear sight of both the goal and the actions that need to be taken. However, both are worthless without the magic ingredient of motivation.

This time we have plans. But while there is still disagreement as to which one – A or B -– takes precedence, coupled with a bombardment of mixed signals, it will result in an uphill climb when further asks are required once more.

Joe Marshall, senior strategist at Mind+Matter

Joe Marshall
Joe Marshall

The current approach has seen a shift towards personal responsibility. With perceived risk of COVID-19 declining in some groups, fewer people are motivated to continue with behaviours that are no longer mandated. The strength of a prevailing social wind should not be underestimated – for example, even those who intend to continue wearing a mask are likely to feel uncomfortable or inhibited if confronted by a room full of people who have chosen to do otherwise. Social norms and peer pressure are powerful influences.

If the Government chooses to reinstate 'Plan B' approaches such as mask-wearing, then many of those barriers to behaviour change at the start of the pandemic still apply and will require interventions that have been previously deployed. However, the change of context and our lived experience is important. To use behavioural interventions such as persuasion and modelling as an example, will highlighting that Government figures are once again wearing masks indoors cut through with the public?

Instead, a different approach might be needed, focusing on community leaders or social influencers that resonate with specific demographics and who can provide credible models to imitate. The behavioural interventions remain the same. The technique and delivery may need to change.

Ranjeet Kaile, director of communications, South London and Maudsley NHS Trust

Ranjeet Kaile
Ranjeet Kaile

With increasing Covid cases it clear that communications has a solid role to play in encouraging more people to take up the vacancy and to take the government guidance seriously if we are to see improvement in the infection rates.

There is an important role for organisations to work with their local communities and networks – supporting information sharing and access to resources that can help cut through the fake news agenda that can cost peoples lives.

There has been some great examples of organisations and communities doing this already – and we need more voices, that people trust, joining in the conversation publicly about the importance of vaccinations, face masks and social distancing.

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