Local unis suggest nudges for COVID 19

A consortium of academics led by Bath and Bristol University (as well as Southampton University) is looking at “nudging” to defend us against coronavirus.

It sounds a little unlikely at first. Nudging involves changing behaviours, small things that can make a big difference. For instance when your tax bill arrives, adding a statement that x% of local tax payers pay their tax ontime. This has been shown to dramatically improve the speed at which we pay our taxes.

So how would this sort of behavioural change impact coronavirus? Well the short answer is by adapting a method the universities already use. It is known as ‘Germ Defence’. Developed by health experts and psychologists, it is already showing results with flu and similar viruses. Research involving a study of over 20,000 people, found that users of the site were less likely to catch viruses; and if they did become ill, on average, their illnesses were shorter and milder.

So how does all this nudging us to change behaviour work? The system is delivered via a website where participants are asked to work through a series of questions and scenarios.

Questions take around 10 minutes to complete. The researchers claim the answers can make a lasting and lifetime impact. This is not complicated messaging, though the reasoning behind the behavioural science is more complex. Important home hygiene suggestions offered to users on the site include:

  • Leaving packages and deliveries for up to 72 hours before opening them to reduce the risk of infection from the disease being passed on surfaces;
  • Regularly disinfecting surfaces in the home. This is seen as particularly important in view of the latest SAGE evidence on just how long the virus can live on hard surfaces;
  • Instilling better hygiene measures between household members, in particular in families, for example by not sharing common household items like towels.

Last month, it was announced the system will be repurposed to respond to COVID 19. The system has the explicit backing of Downing Street. The team are working closely with Public Health England and with international colleagues too. As part of the exercise the site is currently being translated into over 20 languages for international use.

A study by the Universities in the BMJ argued that since most people with COVID-19 are cared for at home, it is increasingly important to limit the amount of virus they come into contact with by reducing virus load.

This sort of behavioural science approach may be greeted with some scepticism, but the idea is interesting. It is also easy to deliver.

We’ll have to wait and see it can make an impact.

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