A ‘perilous and politicised’ pandemic response?
As the UK government announced an end to self-isolation and free Covid tests in England, psychologists and other scientists raised the alarm that these measures could be coming too soon. The SAGE advisory group specialising in behavioural science, SPI-B, published a note highlighting concerns over the potential impact of these measures on behaviour and attitudes.
The authors suggested that a lack of testing would hit vulnerable communities hardest, and also increase anxiety for those more vulnerable to the virus. Withdrawing testing and a legal requirement to self-isolate, they suggested, could send a message that social mixing is acceptable regardless of infection.
The group also pointed specifically to far-right and anti-vax groups who have tapped into social tensions arising from differences in people’s approach to risk. ‘Advice on safe behaviours should acknowledge that different people view the risk of Covid-19 infection differently, often owing to morbidities which are invisible to others… Stressing the need to respect others’ decisions is vital in order to prevent incidents of verbal abuse and physical assault, which have recently occurred in the UK and other countries.’
Professor Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews), a social psychologist and member of SPI-B, told us that the removal of legally-required self-isolation and free testing presented a removal of protections rather than restrictions – and was something which would lead to widening inequalities. ‘In a sense it is that freedom of the powerful to do what they like without thinking about the consequences for everybody else… And it’s that abstracted notion of choice and freedom, which ignores having the means and the possibility to enact your choices, I think it leads to massive inequalities.’
Reicher said the pandemic had shown us the importance of changing our understanding of the nature of human psychology – moving away from a feeling that the individual is universally good and the collective is universally bad. He pointed out that thinking of ourselves as part of a collective during the pandemic led us to feel more resilience, to get involved in mutual aid groups and support our communities, and that shared identity was also found to be important for physical and mental health and for adherence to behaviours to help slow the pandemic.
The government, Reicher said, had perpetually got psychology wrong during the pandemic by placing an emphasis on the individual and personal responsibility. ‘I think that’s bad in public health terms, but it’s pretty rotten in terms of the sort of society I want to live in.’
To move beyond Covid, Reicher said, it was important to reflect on what we have learned and to think about investment in health services, social prescribing for mental health, creating safer environments, and making connectivity to the internet universal. ‘The other thing we need to learn, of course, is that this was a pandemic of inequalities. A lot of the division and conflict we had wasn’t because people were against measures – they were against measures being imposed without recognising the impact on those who are more vulnerable and doing something about it.’
Meanwhile a group of scientists, including experts in public health, epidemiology and virology, published an open letter to chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, since signed by thousands of people, suggesting this new government policy had no solid scientific basis. The letter said the measures would increase the circulation of the virus as well as making it harder to spot troubling new variants. ‘It also puts people who develop Long Covid at a great disadvantage by not having a confirmation of their infection, which is integral to the diagnosis, support and care they need to receive. For the 1 in 4 people in the UK who are clinically vulnerable, the current approach appears a perilous and politicised pandemic response.’
Responding to the Prime Minister’s statement on legal restrictions in England, Julia Faulconbridge, of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology, said: ‘… we need a plan from government that clearly sets out how we can protect those who will continue to be most at risk from Covid. … Living with Covid does not mean consigning groups of our society to living in isolation, and it does not mean we have to put vulnerable people at risk of damage to their physical and mental health. Collective responsibility and coming together as society has been what has seen us through this pandemic so far, we must look to these values now and ensure no-one is left behind in the wish to declare the pandemic “over”.’
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