Inside the communications around COVID

Joseph Marks and Denis Campbell

As part of our weekly Health Insider series, MHP’s #NetworkedAge research partner and UCL psychologist Joseph Marks and the Guardian’s Health Policy Editor Denis Campbell set out their perspectives on the UK Government’s approach to communicating with the public and the healthcare sector during COVID.


UCL behavioural scientist & co-author of Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why’

On your best behaviour? Public response to lockdown confirms our model of influence

Understanding human psychology – how people form beliefs, process information and make decisions – is vital for those seeking to design effective communications and change behaviours.

It therefore seemed sensible to me when, back in 2018, MHP decided to partner with a team of researchers at UCL, including myself, to develop a psychologically-informed model of influence – the ‘Networked Age‘ analysis.

The project involved identifying the most robust communications-relevant effects in the behavioural sciences and categorising them into distinct principles and recommendations. After reviewing over 200 papers from health psychology, behavioural economics and social psychology, we identified nine factors that have been repeatedly shown to influence decision-making and could be integrated into MHP’s communications campaigns.

The question now is whether this model of influence is still applicable in the age of coronavirus. A quick glance is all it takes to realise the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

The first principle is to highlight desirable social norms. Humans are influenced by what the people around them are doing. If we think that everyone else is stockpiling canned foods (not to mention toilet paper), sunbathing at the park and generally flouting the government’s advice, we are more likely to feel okay about doing the same.

The lesson here is for communicators to highlight the vast numbers who are staying at home, respecting social distancing rules and acting unselfishly on behalf of the larger community, rather than draw attention to the few who are not.

The second is to create communications that speak to people’s sense of self-identity. From a very young age, people care about how others see them and want to view themselves in a positive light. As a result, contrary to the view that humans are chiefly driven by self-interest, health messages that emphasise how our actions could help, or prevent harm to, others are often more effective than those that focus on the personal benefits of following a given course of action.

A recent working paper by a team at MIT demonstrated that this is the case when it comes to motivating people to take coronavirus-related preventative actions, such hand-washing, avoiding handshakes and not touching the face. The message ‘don’t spread it’ was more powerful than one saying ‘don’t get it’.

Evidence-based decision making should not only be used by those developing new guidance and containment policies, but also by the communicators responsible for shaping the all-too-human responses to them.

It is to the credit of the academic community that the coronavirus has sparked a frenzy of research activity across the behavioural sciences, with scholars from political science to cognitive neuroscience mobilising to study people’s behaviour and responses to communications during the pandemic. As the new findings are published it is our responsibility to utilise this wealth of information to design effective communications campaigns. While our model of influence is perhaps more relevant today than it was two years ago, the need to question and learn is greater still.


Health Policy Editor, the Guardian

Confused government messaging over testing will be judged by history

When this tumultuous period of upheaval, confusion and danger is over, who will history judge did well? Who showed leadership? And who dared to speak honestly to an unsettled and scared public about the realities of the Coronavirus pandemic?

The NHS’s determined and resourceful response to the biggest logistical and medical challenge it has ever faced has been awesome.

The massive transformation of hospitals, expansion of critical care capacity, creation of field hospitals, repurposing of staff to work in unfamiliar areas, adoption of systems of mutual aid and overnight shift of so much care from face-to-face to remote interaction – all show a service that has set the bar high for meeting the demands of a genuine crisis.

Children’s hand-drawn “we heart the NHS” posters in a million windows underline that the health service has – rightly – been elevated to an even higher pedestal of esteem.

Other public services have performed superbly too. The Army has helped build Nightingale hospitals and driven multi-millions of pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) to places that provide NHS care. Local councils have kept services running, including schools for key workers’ children. Charities and voluntary groups large and small such as foodbanks have found new ways of discharging their roles, despite extra demand and dramatic loss of income.

The Great British Public? They are playing a blinder. Adherence to rules on movement and socialisation unseen even during the Second World War is impressively consistent.

But what of our Government? Ministers will argue in future autobiographies and at the inevitable public inquiry that no one could have foreseen the scale of the challenge and did their best in difficult circumstances.

However, on a range of interlinked key issues – shortages of PPE, lack of testing of both the population at large and NHS staff and the NHS’s overall resources – failures in policy and delivery have been compounded by failures in communication.

“How many tests a day did the government promise during the Coronavirus?” may be a question on a future quiz show to which almost any answer – 10,000, 25,000 or even 250,000 a day – will be correct. Similarly, with PPE, minister’s attempts at reassurance have not banished the terror of those working on the NHS and social care front line. On ventilators, the attempts to downplay the potential calamity of the shortage undermines the legitimacy of the Government’s communications.

The appearance of weighty medical and scientific experts at the daily 5pm Downing Street press conference has been welcome.

But restricting participation to political journalists rather than including health and science correspondents has meant that decision makers have avoided more forensic questioning.

Any attempts to downplay, dissemble and distract – and in some cases pretend that black is white – will not age well when the history of the UK Government response to coronavirus is written.