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Blaming young people for spike in Covid-19 cases may encourage them to give up on social distancing

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Blaming young people for a spike in Covid-19 cases could encourage them to dump social distancing entirely, leading psychologists have warned.

In a letter to Matt Hancock, they say ‘shaming’ the young could have the complete opposite effect to the one intended, and trigger a wave of new cases.

They called on ministers to ‘reframe’ their coronavirus statements and be far more ‘sensitive and understanding’ of the public’s emotional state.

Boris Johnson warned young people to consider their behaviour ‘for the sake of your parents’ and grandparents’ health’ last week after a spike in cases was recorded. 

But experts have pointed out that as young people are less likely to own their own home or car they are more likely to take public transport and spend time in public places than older generations – putting them at greater risk of catching the virus.

Figures show that coronavirus cases are highest among 20 to 29-year-olds, at 28 per 100,000. These are followed by 30 to 39-year-olds, at 17.6 per 100,000, and 10 to 19-year-olds, at 16.2 per 100,000.

The lowest infection rate is among people aged 70 to 79, at 3.9 per 100,000, and rises only slightly to 6.7 in 60 to 69-year-olds and those over 80.

Boris Johnson has warned young people to consider their parents and grandparents after there was a spike in coronavirus cases in younger generations

Criticising the Government for singling out young people for scorn, Professor Manuela Barreto, the head of psychology at the University of Exeter, said: ‘The focus on young people is an unfortunate distraction from the bigger issues underlying the current situation, and one that is unproductive and will only make matters worse.

‘Research shows that fear actually reduces empathy and pro-sociality, especially towards more vulnerable groups in society.’

Jennifer Nadel, co-director of Compassion in Politics, blasted the government for ‘blaming, shaming and debasing the public’s attitude towards coronavirus’.

‘The government must focus its energy on building a robust testing regime, on safeguarding the NHS, and providing financial security to those households most at risk from the oncoming recession,’ she warned. 

‘Dealing with a global pandemic requires care, concern and compassion – it can’t just be beaten into submission by strong words and harsh rhetoric.

‘The government must remember the burden the public has already had to shoulder, the amount of change they’ve accepted and the sacrifices they’ve made.’

Matt Hancock

Health Secretary Matt Hancock (right) praised the action taken to control Covid in Belgium, which imposed a curfew

Their letter has gathered more than 50 signatories, including professors at Aberdeen, Edinburgh Napier and Newcastle universities and the Compassion in Mind Foundation.

Matt Hancock last week blamed the wave of new coronavirus infections on ‘socialising by people in their 20s and 30s’.

Mr Hancock said ONS figures showed weekly coronavirus deaths had dropped to their lowest levels since March, but added: ‘However, we have seen a concerning rise in the number of positive cases, particularly among younger people, and these figures serve as a salutary reminder that this virus is still very much with us and remains a threat.

‘So it is critical that we maintain our collective commitment to controlling this disease, and social distancing is the first line of defence.’ 

The UK has recorded more than 2,000 cases of coronavirus every day for the past ten days, amid mounting fears of a new outbreak.

Yesterday as many as 3,103 new cases of coronavirus were recorded. 

Letter sent to Matt Hancock asking him not to criticise young people in FULL 

 To Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health,

We write to express our concern about the content, tone, and delivery of the government’s messages designed to address a possible ‘second wave’ of Covid-19.

We recognise the need to encourage continued public vigilance, and the promotion of safe behaviour. Some messages being used by the government, however, are designed to increase fear which will likely lead to increased rates of anxiety, stress, and depression.

A paper by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) behavioural science sub-group SPI-B discussed at the March 23 2020 meeting records that in order to encourage conformity with social distancing and other anti-Covid measures the ‘perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased … using hard-hitting emotional messaging’. The proposed adaptations to messaging were welcomed by policymakers. With the government concerned about the prospect of a second-wave, this approach is now again being adopted and amplified by the media. In recent days government Ministers have sought to imply that the behaviour of younger generations could lead to the deaths of their grandparents and that family Christmas’s will have to be cancelled if ‘young people’ do not behave more responsibly.

The claim made in the SAGE minutes that the ‘perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased’ is concerning:

  • Those already living with a degree of anxiety or stress do not need to have their fear-level elevated further by threat-based messaging. There is evidence that rates of anxiety have increased and depression has doubled during the pandemic. Fear messages will be particularly potent for the elderly who are frightened to go out, parents who are concerned about sending their children back to school, and people who are wary of using public transport or returning to work or education.  
  • For those for whom the messaging is effective it will be extremely difficult to reverse its potent threat effect, with the ‘hard hitting emotional message’ likely to long outlive the actual danger of Covid. This is ‘biological preparedness’, a form of selective learning that enables the human brain to very quickly associate threat with certain stimuli. Once learnt, this fear response is tremendously difficult to unlearn and, as evidence shows, one of the main antecedents of anxiety and phobias.
  • The people that the government needs to engage with their Covid guidance will not be won-over by fear-based messaging. Research has shown that some individuals will at best ignore fear-based messages or at worst can be goaded into even-greater displays of irresponsibility. Pictures of lung cancer on packages of cigarettes did not stop smoking and capital punishment did not stop people committing crimes. Additionally, shaming and blaming the young, while asking them to make sacrifices (essentially curtailing their social development and relationship formations) could also result in the exact opposite of the behaviours desired by the government. It is essential that we understand the impact of lockdown on the typical behaviours of the young, who are biologically orientated at this point in their lives to be highly social, develop peer group relationships, and sexual partners. These kinds of behaviour are different to their older peers. The government needs to show a much greater empathic awareness for young people who are being robbed of the opportunities and joys of their youth.

We therefore recommend:

  •  A reframing of the general message being communicated by the government. The government must acknowledge the pain and suffering that people are experiencing and the anxiety that Covid, and the lifting of restrictions, has caused for some. When a speaker validates their audience’s experiences and shows empathic resonance with them, the audience is much more receptive to the message being conveyed.
  •  A switch to more targeted messaging. Broadcasting a hard-hitting message to the population at-large risks the mental wellbeing of individuals prone to or suffering from anxiety, depression, and stress. Such deleterious effects could be avoided by broadcasting messages through the mediums the target audience is most likely to read or listen to.
  •  There needs to be far more extensive research into subgroups to explore what messages would support and encourage them to behave in the ways that require extensive personal sacrifice of their usual lifestyle. Those conveying the message must be from the same group so they can see that it is a mutually shared burden. Messages should be communicated by individuals that the target audience identifies with. Hearing fear-based messages from older, authoritarian figures is likely to reduce engagement. We should also avoid making assumptions about certain population groups. The evidence is that the majority of young people actually comply. In addition, we should explore the contributions young people, can and are making to control the virus, empowering rather than shaming them.

We understand that we are all under great pressure to reduce the spread of Covid-19, and it is with that aspiration that we highlight the fact that behaviour change is not straight forward. Each one of us has a contribution to make and identifying the problem with a specific group could undermine the spirit of togetherness that will help us through this difficult time. We cannot create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ because we will all be weaker for it.

Yours,

The letter was signed by 50 signatories

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