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Scientists shocked by ‘stay alert’ Covid messages they did not agree with

Behaviour scientists advising the Government reacted with shock when former prime minister Boris Johnson tweeted to the public “stay alert” messages with which they did not agree, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.

Professor Lucy Yardley, co-chairwoman of Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), the sub-group that provide behavioural input to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said Government public health messaging around the pandemic did not help people with the changing rules.

The inquiry also heard about an email from an official in the Cabinet Office saying new slogans brought in by the Government were “kept so elusive by a small number of mainly Number 10 advisers”.

In May 2020, the Government messaging changed from ‘stay home’ to ‘stay alert, control the virus and save lives’.

In an email chain, Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London and a member of Spi-B said she sincerely hoped the new massaging she had heard was coming in was incorrect, adding: “It goes against several principles we’ve rehearsed many times in our advice to Sage and the Government.”

She added that Spi-B had been raising the “problem” of Government communications for several weeks.

Spi-B’s Professor James Rubin was urged by the group’s members to write to the chairperson of Sage to document the concerns and potentially intervene, but by then Mr Johnson had already tweeted the new slogan.

Replying to the news, Prof Michie emailed: “Oh gosh, Prime Minister communication to the nation by Twitter is now in the UK.”

Prof Stephen Reicher, from the University of St Andrews, replied: “We’ve learned so much from Donald Trump.

“But seriously, I think it would still be helpful for James to write such a message now, or more importantly, discuss it.”

An email sent from an official at the Cabinet Office to Prof Rubin was then shown to the inquiry.

It said the official would work to understand “how the next phase of this kind of messaging can be more supported by Spi-B (or at least make sure the decisions are made having seen the advice).

“The messages in this instance are kept so elusive by a small number of mainly Number 10 advisers – these are agencies that have won their political campaigns and are now supporting this one too.

“My team was never consulted either and as soon as I heard the message I flagged our concerns which mirror those of the group – only to be told it was too late now…”

Earlier, Prof Yardley told the inquiry how she had concerns about the messages given to the public.

She said: “I think there was a fundamental problem, in the sense that the strategy seemed to be based on issuing rules and using slogans.

“The rules kept changing and the reasons why they were introduced and why they were changed were not fully explained.

“People were not given enough education about the pandemic and how we could all manage it best to really understand why things were introduced and why they were changed.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, when we had to lock down, a simple slogan was appropriate.

“But what I and other Spi-B members were advising was that in order to come out of that, the general public needed a much more detailed understanding of how infection spreads, how we all have to work together to keep it under control and how, if we did that, it would reduce the need for the severe lockdowns and all the harms that came with that.

“What we needed to do was to harness the willingness that the public had, which we knew that the public had, to try to keep the infection under control, and to educate everybody better about how you do that by carrying out activities more safely, so that you don’t have to lock down.

“It’s that more nuanced, complex, co-operative way of co-producing the solutions to the problems of infection control that we were advising, and the top-down changing slogans was just a fundamentally different way of approaching it.”

Prof Yardley also told the inquiry consultations about messaging did not improve as the pandemic went on.

She said “on the whole, the communications tended to go ahead with very little input from Spi-B, even though we were very happy to advise.”

The expert further said the Eat Out To Help Out scheme “came at a really crucially problematic time”.

She said: “It was during the summer and that was when there was a really missed opportunity.

“That was when the infections were low and we could have all hopefully kept them low if everybody had understood how to resume activities safely, and had understood that only if we did that would we be able to avoid or minimise the need for further lockdowns.

Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak promoting the Eat Out To Help Out scheme
Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak promoting the Eat Out To Help Out scheme (PA)

“But instead, the Eat Out To Help Out scheme made people think that it was safe and that actually it was your duty to meet people and that wasn’t going to lead to more infection spread.”

The inquiry later heard about messages in April 2020 taken from a WhatsApp group that included then-health secretary Matt Hancock.

It followed a scientific paper on April 13 summarising the evidence on face masks, saying there was “weak evidence that the use of facemasks by symptomatic people may reduce transmission”.

Mr Hancock wrote: “We do not have enough masks to say these things.

“Talking about this before we’re ready risks taking masks from nurses and social care workers who really need them.

“It’s self-indulgent and dangerous.”