Tuesday 12 January 2021 5:00 am

Government's communications failures can be remedied - if they're fixed soon

The Prime Minister’s lockdown announcement last week has left a collective sense of déjà vu and a frustration at seemingly being back to square one ten months into the pandemic. 

Whilst we are facing an evolved virus, a key component to our fight against the virus has not changed: human behaviour.

Rallying behind an approach underpinned by behavioural understanding will have a significant impact on compliance and provide some light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel. 

Listen: City A.M. Editor Andy Silvester talks to Chancellor Rishi Sunak

Three simple actions

Most medical experts agree the best way to reduce the impact of the coronavirus is to follow three simple steps: maintain social distance (2m+), wear a facemask when out and wash your hands. Three simple actions. The challenge is how to operate with these restrictions while still opening-up schools and supporting a seriously ailing economy. 

The reality is that there is no way to prioritise both, as “opening-up” society and reducing restrictions comes with a significant health cost, evidenced by the most recent return to lockdown. No government has been perfect through this crisis, but where the UK government has been found seriously wanting is in the lack of consistency, the lack of simplicity and the lack of enforcement.  


All parents know just how important consistency is to creating a happy home and the problems that arise if one parent goes rogue, changes the rules suddenly or fails to back up the other parent. The same is true of public health messaging. When communicating to such a large audience, many of whom hold competing opinions or values, it is of utmost importance that messages are consistent from all sources. Any deviation from a platform will swiftly be seen as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to bend the rules to suit our own opinions. It is why consistency falls near the top of priorities in the WHOs own guidelines on how best to communicate public health messages to drive behaviour change.


As the great B.J Fogg saysmake something easier to do and people are more likely to do it”, and sadly the messaging from the English government has fallen short in this department.

Ever expanding numbers of tiers, regional variation and daily, substantial shifts in policy (ask parents about last week’s schools debacle) all have created too much space for personal adaptation of “rules” to suit our preferences as opposed to encouraging us towards collective behaviour change. 

Read more: Parliament is rolling over to diktats from an increasingly authoritarian Government


Why did we all stop using plastic bags? For years we had all been exposed to images of landfills full of plastic waste and had been urged to use reusable bags, but there had been precious little change.

Suddenly a 5p charge (penalty) comes into effect and almost overnight plastic bag use falls. The key to the success of this behaviour change was not just the additional charge itself but the message this conveyed: “you, personally can make a difference in reducing plastic waste and if you choose not to, then you will have to pay”.

While many would argue against unilateral fines or charges for non-compliance, there is little doubt of their effect. In fact, there is evidence in areas such as speeding fines, that the higher the fine, the greater the compliance.

If the advice is right and we will truly “save lives and protect the NHS” by actions as simple as maintaining social distance (2m+), wearing a facemask when out and washing our hands, then fining those who refuse to adopt these measures certainly merits consideration. 

Whilst the size of the financial penalty is important, the key here to achieving positive behaviour change is the message having a fine conveys; ““you, personally, can make a difference in protecting lives and supporting our NHS and if you choose not to, then you will have to pay”.

If the government hopes to achieve greater compliance of rules over this period where the vaccine roll-out will compete against a more virulent virus, then they would do well to consider three adjustments: be consistent with what they want us to do and in the communication of these messages, keep the messages as simple as possible and see they are properly enforced. 

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