By Jim McManus, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire and author of our Coronavirus COVID-19 guidance.
We are facing some momentous changes over the next few weeks, possibly months. We are also facing two epidemics in the UK. The first is COVID19, and the second is fear and panic. And it is entirely possible that the latter will hamper our response to slow and delay the impact of the former.
The fact that it is difficult to detect the signal of the science and trustworthy advice when there is so much noise from social media and other media makes the job of leadership in these times more complicated. The fact that the science has changed, more than once, and abruptly changed (to protect us) has also added to that complexity and the need to explain that science clearly and consistently to maintain trust. I do trust the science, because I have read as much of it as I can. Were my only sources the news media, I may have taken a different view.
We will get through this with the right combination of skills and tactics. First, listening to the science, second making clear and calm decisions in light of these and third, explaining to everyone what they can do.
That’s where people managers come in. We need to prepare our workforces but we also need to promote the vital pro-social behaviour we need to get through the coming months.
We are going to need several sets of key psychological and people skills in the next few months.
It’s important that we know the facts – both to combat the virus and to combat the spread of fear and panic that goes with it.
We are dealing with COVID-19, a coronavirus, a virus from a family of viruses that causes illness in humans of varying kinds. The virus is likely to have jumped species from an animal to a human (and to be honest unless you’re involved in sequencing the genetic code to make a vaccine or stop it happening again it’s pretty irrelevant which animal species it jumped from.) It was first notified on 31 December in China. You can go to www.gov.uk/coronavirus for more information.
The virus has spread rapidly, largely by droplet spread. 81% of us will get mild illness like a bad flu,14% of us more severe, 5% may need hospital care and less than 2% will die. Most people recover. But you don’t read about that in the media.
It’s new. And while there are some things we know, there are other things we don’t. We don’t yet have a vaccine. We don’t yet have antiviral drugs so treatment is for the symptoms and problems caused by the virus. And we can’t stop it altogether. And some of us can’t work from home.
Well, we do know from experience of dealing with viruses like these and others that there are things which really will slow the spread of it, and this remains important for everyone, doubly so for those who have to come to work.
There are things which disrupt the spread of the virus. These are all about not allowing the virus a route into your body or from one person to another. I call these the six to fix:
Hand sanitiser is a reasonable second best if you don’t have soap and water. Making people use it coming into meetings and public buildings in addition to hand washing is an extra layer of defence.
Well, you do this because although you may have mild disease (do you really want something like ‘flu anyway?) others may get it much worse. You protect the vulnerable. Doing so is an act of love and charity. You may not get it bad, but what if someone you loved did?
This is, as I alluded to above, surrounded by noise, myth and poor reporting. The government has recognised that we cannot stop this virus. It has also recognised that those who are older (over 60 or 70) and folk with serious underlying health conditions like weakened immune systems, diabetes and lung disease will have more severe disease. They have taken a very precautionary approach to self isolation and social distancing, which will have business continuity implications.
Our priority has to be to protect the vulnerable from the worst consequences of disease. It is a sign of a civilised society how well we take that seriously. So we need to make sure that the NHS capacity is kept for those who really need it.
Slowing the spread of the virus means we won’t over-top the NHS capacity, we will end up with fewer infections overall and we won’t end up with vulnerable people being unable to get the best care. And it’s important then that those of us with mild illness – when and if we get COVID-19 – look after ourselves and each other as much as we can.
It’s also important that we choose the right time to close companies, offices and businesses. And we don’t let that up too soon or too quickly. Even if we are bored and fed up. Why? Well, watch this simple video that explains it well.
Never mind about herd immunity for now. And never mind about some of the self-proclaimed experts who claim they know best but don’t produce any evidence for it. We will get through this. The vast majority of us who get it will recover, and if we take the steps described here the most vulnerable who get it will be given the best chance of recovery.
Nobody has stopped this virus. People have slowed it down. But nobody has stopped it. It is dangerous to make comparisons with other countries because they test people at different rates and stages and they responded at different stages. The type of testing, reliability of tracing people who’ve been in contact with infected people all varies.
Timing of what we do is everything, and an awful lot of what you have seen on social media is misleading and inaccurate. Go into “lockdown” too soon, and when you all come back out, the virus will spread again as the video above shows.
Actually a lot of those experts aren’t experts in communicable disease control. While it might be fair comment that the national strategy could be better explained, having lots of people shout at government that they know better without producing detailed evidence of that isn’t helping.
Government is going to publish its modelling. That’s sensible. It should enable open, transparent and respectful discussion of the science from all scientific disciplines and experts of goodwill so we can all have confidence we have the best strategy for these times. But shouting “I know best” when none of us do just drives fear. Equally, you need to prompt the scientists in your organisation to explain the science in the clearest terms possible.
Well, I think there are five priorities here for business leaders and managers:
Lastly, you could understand the dynamics of how people behave in crises. They tend to behave in ways which make sense to them because they are responding to fear, and they often respond by exerting control over the things they can control. So panic buying, those annoying folk nicking the hand sanitiser from offices and everyone moving their travel times to avoid crowds but ending up in the office early fall into that category. Understand the psychology behind this behaviour, and especially create social norms and other barriers to people behaving in ways that are harmful.
And create space where people can grieve the seismic changes to our lives that we will need to cope with for the coming season, and find ways of adjustment.
Together we can slow the epidemic of COVID19 and protect our most vulnerable. And they can stop the epidemic of fear and panic which is making it worse for everyone, and which, if unchecked, will linger with ill effect long after we have better treatment and prevention strategies for COVID19
We will get through this.
Where do I get more information? Here are some helpful links.
You can find videos on good hygiene technique here as well as FAQs and other materials www.hertfordshire.gov.uk/about-the-council/news/news-archive/coronavirus-frequently-asked-questions
Mental Health advice
Behavioural science Podcasts including self isolation
Self isolation advice
Guidance on social distancing
Guidance on staying at home with possible infection
Guidance on mass gatherings
The Psychology of Panic Buying
Jim McManus, Chartered FCIPD is Vice President of the UK Association of Directors of Public Health. He is a Chartered Psychologist, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire and has experience of managing large outbreaks and the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Jim is part of the Bishops’ Conference Healthcare Reference Group and had produced our guidelines on Coronavirus COVID-19.