Leicester has gone back into lockdown following a spike in the infection rate of the Covid-19 virus. The city council and the public health and policing authorities held a press conference on Friday 3rd July in which they confirmed that they would be given additional support from the UK government in the form of behavioural scientists. According to the Leicester Mercury, Public Health England’s Nick Phin said that “the team of behavioural scientists are working within the city to see if people are observing social distancing and other guidelines.” If people are not observing the guidelines, then “targeted measures and communications will be used to reinforce the stay home and two metres messages.” Phin explained that “change in behaviours is one of the indicators that will see the local lockdown lifted,” and while there is “not one single measure, there’s a variety of measures we’re looking at.”
The problem of anticipating the right behaviour changes will be, according to Phin, that the “infection rate and number of positive cases within the protected area will not be the only factor considered when thinking about lifting the extension,” and that people are being urged to follow the guidelines, and as soon as there is evidence of behavioural change then there will be a relaxation of the lockdown. Phin is reported saying that “If these indicators are going in the right direction, more people are adhering, more people are doing what the Government is advising, the number of cases should be sustained and prevent an upsurge.” The Local Democracy Reporter Amy Orton contributing to the Leicester Mercury article noted that “The Department for Health and Social Care has also previously said that low compliance with social distancing rules within some areas of the city is one of the contributing factors to Leicester’s high infection rate.”
In the flow of public communications during the pandemic, one thing that has been a problem, has been the extent to which communication strategies have failed to explain what the thinking and logic is behind the policies and decisions that are have been made. How many people know and understand what behavioural science is beyond the odd Wikipedia article? How many people have a sense of why the UK governments particular model of behavioural science is being used, when there are other approaches and schools of thinking about social and community engagement that could be utilised? The behaviourist approach to government, which is being accelerated by Dominic Cummings, is shrouded in mystery. It is opaque and ill-defined. The general public does not have a clear sense of what behaviourism is, and where it might lead.
Why is it that a model of behavioural science which is designed to suit consumerism and a narrow sub-set of economics is being used to determine public health policy, policing the lockdown, and strategic decisions that are causing untold harm, both physically and mentally to many people, without being robustly questioned? Is the UK being run like a supermarket and a shipping company, with data flows that are monitored at the central executive level, before being dispersed though response teams by ill-placed and unsuited sub-agencies? At what point does our response to the pandemic and the lockdown shift from being a passive civil action – stay home, protect the NHS, save lives – to being an active process of civic and community empowerment? Keep yourself well, keep your community well, ensure we have social capacity to facilitate change?
As was once said in a different context, we need to be tough on Civid-19, and tough on the causes of Covid-19: inequality, low literacies, workplace exploitation, civic marginalisation, structural racism, delusional and magical thinking. Sir Michael Marmot outlines to devastating effect how the Conservative Government since 2010 has purposefully taken money and access to resources from the poorest and given it to the richest.
I’m concerned that the blame is now being put onto the people of Leicester themselves, and that the throw-away phrase that is going unchallenged, that “low compliance with social distancing rules” is to blame, is a way of diverting attention from the failings of the government and the public authorities. What resources and organisational capacity have local authorities actually been able to put into their neighbourhoods at a time of crisis? Why has there been a reliance on single-model, or one-size-fits-all communications approaches? Why have communities not been empowered to speak for and to themselves, and take the lead on the lockdown messaging? What is meant by the behaviourist model, and how useful is it when there is potential for criminal avoidance and a disregard by some employers to keep trading at all costs?
There are so many questions that this throws up. How can we shine a light and help people to understand what is meant by the behaviourist mindset in government? At worst, it treats people like passive information users in an algorithm, and it denies people their fundamental rights as citizens to be informed and to make their own decisions, based on open and transparent information and an understanding of the decision-making process. The shock of going back into lockdown here in Leicester has been considerable. The civic and community response has largely been ignored or downplayed by the public authorities, though there is some shifting of the thinking about the role of community media, as Sir Peter Soulsby the City Mayor of Leicester made clear that he supports community media as a valuable tool to reach communities that are otherwise not responsive to the news and information that is carried in the mainstream media.
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t know, either, if they are the right questions that should be asked. I do know that questions do need to be raised about the tools that are being used by the government, the public health services, the police and the local authorities. They should not be used without accountability. They should only be used with civic consent. They should not be imposed on people if they do not want to succumb to this model of civic governance, and they should be clear about what the intended effects, and the unintended consequences might be in using behaviourist theories. We need a public discussion about this.
If you are a behavioural scientist, or you are familiar and experience with the informing principles and practices of behavioural science, I would like to discuss this with you in a future Decentered Media Podcast. Please get in touch.