David Soffer: How lockdowns and Plan B have caused behavioural changes

24 Dec

David Soffer is a London-based consultant who has worked in digital consultancy and reputation management for over eight years. This is a sponsored post by DSR Digital.

With businesses across the UK and the world having been impacted in one way or another as a result of the pandemic for the last two years, human behaviour has been in the spotlight like never before. Populations everywhere have at one point or another adapted and changed their behavioural practices.

Although some of the changes made have been mandated by the state, in various countries, other changes in people’s behaviour have been self-guided and has been in response to increasing ‘behavioural science’ and shifts in society.

What is the Nudge Unit?

The UK government has enlisted the assistance of the Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the ‘Nudge Unit’ of the government. Scientists in this team have worked with the government on effective messaging and the communication of behavioural instructions such as the wearing of face coverings, social distancing and taking up vaccines and boosters.

Established by David Cameron’s government in 2010, the Nudge Unit was designed and set up to use behavioural science to help guide public policy. The Nudge Department now falls under the remit of the Cabinet Office and Dr David Halpern, its Chief Executive, is a former Director of Research at the Institute for Government.

Previously the Nudge Unit was utilised to encourage and remind people to submit tax returns and pay their taxes on time. Samuel Davies, founder of Kallyss, an online finance hub said of this: “It is really interesting to understand how the UK’s Nudge Unit has been adapted. Interestingly, in British culture, money has traditionally been seen as taboo and so it makes sense that this unit was set up to break that stigma. Ultimately, when it comes to human behaviour, the biggest challenges are those which require the addressing of stigmas and taboos.”

What changes to behaviour have people adopted?

There are numerous changes to behaviour which have been overt, such as the wearing of face coverings, an increased degree of social distancing and people’s reduced propensity to hug and embrace when meeting people. However, some of the changes in society have been a little less overt.

Sefton Jameson of Wuffes commented: “People have changed how they behave and what they do as part of their daily lives like never before and some of the practices like handwashing are sure to stay with us in the future. More people than ever though, have also turned to pets and pet ownership in the last couple of years has skyrocketed; with dogs being a particular favourite. It shouldn’t be overlooked though, that when it comes to dogs, owners will need to account for things like multivitamins for dogs, nutritional supplements and other care-related accessories.”

Is productivity suffering?

Some of the changes to the behaviour of entire populations have been welcomes by some, yet impacted people in very different ways. For example, work from home mandates across the world have had mixed results on the productivity of workers, with different employees and businesses experiencing different outcomes as a result.

Mia Naumoska of Chanty.com, which specialises in team collaboration and communication, provided specific insights and analysis on the specific issues around productivity of workers: “When the pandemic first came about, it caught us all by great surprise, causing some devastating effects on business operations everywhere and the global economy more widely.

It created a strong sense of uncertainty for millions of workers worldwide, which undoubtedly hindered their productivity.

Most companies were forced to adopt either remote or hybrid business models, even if temporarily, which initially inhibited productivity levels considering the adjustments and learning curves that needed to be dealt with.

The great news is that we are not doomed. We have already identified various ways of improving workers’ productivity back to the pre-covid days and possibly far beyond that.

The number one change businesses should look into is identifying and implementing the business communication tool that best suits their needs. All team chat apps create flawless communication with IM and Audio/Video calls, whereas only a few of the best options take it a step further with built-in project management tools that allow workers to create, assign, track, and collaborate on tasks.

Business communication tools improve team communication and collaboration, which, as a result, skyrockets team productivity no matter if you’re working remotely or in-office.

Business leaders will play a key role in improving workers’ productivity. In these challenging times, it is up to the managers to ensure that team members are motivated, engaged, and most importantly, as mentally comfortable as possible given the challenging circumstances.

We have come a long way from the beginning of the pandemic, but there is an even longer way ahead of us on the path of returning to our peak productivity.”

Harry Fone: Social distancing rules have pushed up the cost of council meetings

29 Jun

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

In recent weeks I’ve received a lot of correspondence from concerned taxpayers and councillors about the costs of holding covid compliant council meetings. During the pandemic, temporary legislation allowed local authorities to hold hybrid meetings – a mix of virtual and in-person meetings – in order for local government to function effectively.

Since May 7th, councils, by law, must hold meetings in person, despite the fact that social distancing guidelines are still in place. Many authorities lack the floor space to facilitate this and have effectively been forced to hire venues that do, at significant cost to the taxpayer.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council shelled out £6,000 to hold a recent meeting at a local exhibition venue. So too Sefton, Sheffield and Manchester, costing taxpayers £3,000, £10,000 and £7,000 respectively. Similarly, Portsmouth City Council bought £5,000 worth of AV equipment in order for its meeting to go ahead. Across England’s 330 plus councils, it’s very possible that the total bill to ensure meetings are covid compliant could be in excess of £1 million.

With many in the private sector adopting the financial and environmental benefits of video conferencing technology, it’s a massive shame that the temporary legislation couldn’t have been extended until social distancing restrictions are lifted. Councils aren’t to blame for this and many local leaders have called for hybrid meetings to continue. It’s not hard to see why – time and money could have been better utilised on frontline services.

A warm welcome?

Back in March, the government announced the Welcome Back Fund (WBF) “to help boost the look and feel of high streets and seaside towns”. £56 million has been allocated to local authorities in England to invest in everything from seating areas to parks.

I’m not a huge fan of the WBF. Yes, I want my town centre to look nice but there really isn’t a magic money tree. Given the devastating effects of covid we have to focus public cash on real priorities like adult social care and children’s services. Is this fund really a priority at a time like this? Put it another way, if you were struggling to pay your mortgage every month you wouldn’t splash out on fripperies would you?

Sheffield City Council was allocated some £520,216 from the fund and I have to question whether they’ve made the best decisions when it comes to spending taxpayers’ cash. The council has tendered two contracts, one to appoint a “media and PR agency” and the other a “creative agency” to promote the objectives of the WBF. The total value of these contracts is £135,000 – 26 per cent of allocated funding.

It begs the question, will taxpayers’ actually see any value from this? It seems quite ridiculous to me that such a large chunk of their budget will be splurged on ad men. Does the council really need two agencies to achieve its goals? Why not ask the public directly (for little to no cost) what they want by getting them to email their suggestions. Or why not go to businesses directly in the town centre and get their opinions?

Promising news from Croydon

At long last there’s a glimmer of hope for Croydon Council following the latest report from its Improvement and Assurance Panel. You may recall that the council ploughed £214 million into a housing company called Brick-by-Brick (BBB) which at last count had only built a handful of the homes it promised. This coupled with other serious failings led to Croydon Council declaring bankruptcy.

A brighter future is on the horizon though. The decision has been taken to continue with housing construction on some BBB sites but with the overarching goal to extract the company from all activities by October of this year. Additionally, a property developer is seeking to buy up BBB and a deal will hopefully be struck next month.

There are opportunities for further savings to be made too. The council has 313 external contracts worth around £200 million that are up for renewal this year. The Improvement and Assurance Panel described the council’s arrangements for ensuring that contracts deliver value as “poor.” So one would hope that in future negotiations they can both negotiate better deals and ensure that suppliers better fulfil their contractual obligations.

Croydon Council is by no means out of the woods. It’s only thanks to capital injections totalling £120 million from central government that there is a balanced budget this year. In all likelihood, residents will be paying for the council’s mistakes in the form of even higher council tax bills. Let’s hope Croydon residents get good value for money in future, especially since the newly appointed chief executive will be paid £192,000 a year.

Emily Carver: Many scoffed at the idea it would be hard to regain our freedoms. Yet the Government shows no sign of handing them back.

16 Jun

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

There are people in this country who would be quite happy to continue with the current restrictions on our lives – social distancing, mask wearing and the closure of sectors of our economy – in perpetuity.

For anyone in doubt, a recent media interview revealed this quite plainly to be the case. Dr Richard Taylor, former independent MP, now Co-Leader of the National Health Action Party, said that his preference was for the lockdown to “continue indefinitely”. By his own admission, the reason he is so relaxed about the societal and economic damage this would reap is because he is “extremely selfish” and quite happy with his own “self-contained life”. Suffice to say, I was gobsmacked.

You might say, well he’s clearly a public health zealot and that at least he was honest. But he’s certainly not alone in this view. It’s not a conspiracy that leading advisers to our government have become so tunnel-visioned in their approach to public health that their aim now appears to be to eliminate all risk – at least from this one threat – at any cost.

Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Communist Party of Britain and SAGE scientist who openly endorses a “zero Covid” strategy, revealed on Channel 5 News that she believes social distancing, including mask wearing, should continue not only into the long-term but forever.

It is terrifying and depressing in equal measure to think that such extreme views may be reflected in the Government’s current strategy. Now, as we face an indefinite delay to the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, it appears as if all cost-benefit analyses on restrictions have been thrown out in favour of a strategy to avoid Covid deaths at all costs, without even a pretence of parliamentary scrutiny.

More worrying for the culture of this country, is that it’s not just public health enthusiasts and risk averse bureaucrats who seem to adhere to this way of thinking. A YouGov snap poll yesterday found that 71 per cent of English people support the delay, with 41 per cent saying they “strongly” support it. According to the survey, only 24 per cent of those living in England oppose the delay, with 14 per cent saying they “strongly” oppose the decision.

Even if we allow for a large margin of error, it’s clear that most people in this country remain on board with the Government’s lockdown experiment – even 15 months after we were told “three weeks to flatten the curve”. But is this that surprising considering the UK government and Public Health England spent nearly £300 million last year on ad campaigns to frighten the public into submission?

We continue to hear the same old refrain from parts of the establishment media. What’s another two to four weeks of delay? Surely, if we’re cautious now, we can avoid another full lockdown? And the dreaded “save one life” fallacy: restrictions are worth it if they save one life, right?

It’s interesting how this consensus is dominated by those little impacted by the restrictions still in place. Could it be that those in secure public sector jobs, those still working from the comfort of their homes or on furlough, or those who don’t particularly enjoy a trip to a night club haven’t really noticed a difference in their quality of life and are therefore quite happy to take the moral high ground now?

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve thought it wise to resist engaging in intergenerational warfare over Covid, not least because it has been the elderly who have fallen victim to this disease.

However, with the upper age groups and the most vulnerable near fully vaccinated, it is unjustifiable for restrictions to remain on the young, the vast majority of whom have given up their freedoms despite being at little risk of harm. Ironically, it may be that the elderly take back their freedoms first, with certain activities closed to the not yet doubled-jabbed.

But with 81 per cent of over 65s saying they either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” the delay, Boris Johnson is under little to pressure to change tack. It’s highly likely he’ll continue to outsource responsibility for our pandemic policy to his narrow clique of scientific advisers.

And it’s not just because young people are selfish that they are more likely to oppose the continuation of these measures. If you look at the latest labour market figures, it is those under 25 who saw the largest fall in pay-rolled employment in May, despite overall unemployment remaining better than expected.

It is true that older people have also been badly impacted by redundancies and job losses, and young people may, on the whole, be able to bounce back faster. However, many young people have found themselves trapped in a state of adolescent dependency far longer than is healthy since the start of the pandemic, unable to find the kind of jobs in hospitality, events and the arts where they would have previously found employment. This hiatus could even lead to a permanent loss of income over the course of a career, as several economists have predicted. No furlough scheme or income support can replace real-life work experience.

This long-term damage is mere collateral in the Government’s stubbornly cautious approach to unlocking. We were told by Matt Hancock that restrictions would end once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated. This week, the Prime Minister said that the four-week delay was to give the NHS extra time to jab two thirds of the adult population.

Many have scoffed at the idea that it will be a fight to regain our freedoms. But if even vaccinating the most vulnerable won’t allow us to get back to life as normal, it’s hard to see the Government and SAGE loosening their grip any time soon.

Nick Hoile: The tide is beginning to turn on Covid. Ministers should act now to prevent a winter flu crisis.

17 Feb

Nick Hoile is a health policy specialist and a Senior Director at MHP Communications.

After making it through the most gruelling January in its history, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the NHS. The number of people in hospital with Coronavirus is slowly falling, as the lockdown pays off by reducing transmission and the vaccination programme now reaching over 500,000 people a day. With spring around the corner, ministers will surely be tempted to move the story on from “winter pressures” and focus on the Government’s recovery strategy.

But winter is always coming, and it pays to be prepared. Despite dire predictions, there was no “twindemic” of Covid and seasonal flu this year. In fact, the number of people suffering from flu fell by more than 95 per cent compared to the previous year. Social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, lockdowns, and an enhanced influenza vaccination programme all contributed to reduced transmission. Next year, we may not be so lucky.

Seasonal flu has the potential to come back with a vengeance, as Coronavirus restrictions lift and the public begins to “tune out” after 18 months of persistent public health messaging. Ministers and health systems leaders may struggle to find the bandwidth to focus on flu, as they work flat out to deal with the backlog of patients waiting for routine care, implement new NHS legislation, and establish new public health structures.

If Sir Simon Stevens moves on from NHS England this year, as he is expected to do, we may enter the next flu season with new NHS leadership in place. The result could be a “perfect storm” for the NHS, with swamped GP practices, full hospitals and longer waits for care causing a severe headache for the Government. It would be an open goal for Labour’s effective shadow health team.

So, what can ministers do to avoid a health and political crisis next flu season? Thankfully, they already have one of the most powerful tools for protecting public health and reducing pressure on the NHS at their disposal: seasonal flu vaccines. There are several steps ministers should consider now to help ensure the vaccines reach people at risk of flu and its complications.

First, they should build on the success of the 2020/21 flu vaccination programme – the most effective there has ever been. The successful rollout of a national “call and recall” system, which encouraged people to get vaccinated, should be fine-tuned, and the expansion of the programme to include people aged 50 and over should be retained for another year which evidence is collected on its impact.

Second, ministers should seize the opportunity of the new NHS legislation to establish clear leadership and accountability for vaccination programmes. As a result of the Lansley reforms introduced by the Health & Social Care Act 2012, responsibility for flu vaccination is currently spread across several different NHS and public health organisations. Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that England has consistently missed the World Health Organization’s target for flu vaccination uptake among over 65s and at-risk groups in recent years.

A more rational structure, with clear safeguards to prevent vaccine programmes falling in and out of fashion once politicians have a stronger grip on the NHS, would undoubtedly focus minds. As Nadhim Zahawi’s appointment as minister with responsibility for the rollout of the Covid vaccine has shown, accountability is often critical to the successful rollout of government programmes.

Third, the NHS’s complex system of payments and incentives to drive uptake of the flu vaccine should be reformed as part of the Government’s planned vaccines strategy for England. Providing flu vaccination clinics can be lucrative for GP practices – and rightly so, given their importance. However, this can cause GP practices to compete, rather than collaborate, with other health services like community pharmacies, which may be more convenient for some patients to visit.

A review into payment systems has already been conducted, and the emphasis on collaboration rather than competition in the forthcoming NHS legislation sounds like a step in the right direction.

In addition to fostering collaboration, the payment system could also be adjusted to provide a greater reward for vaccinating “at-risk” groups of working age adults with conditions like cancer or diabetes that make them particularly vulnerable to flu.

These groups have historically been harder to reach than the over 65s. In 2020/21 only 52 per cent of “at-risk” groups took up the offer of a flu vaccine, compared to 81 per cent of the over 65s. These numbers need to increase if we are to protect the vulnerable and reduce pressure on the NHS next flu season.

Fourth, there is an opportunity for ministers to do more to encourage best practice sharing across the NHS. The uptake of the flu vaccine can vary significantly across the country, with local areas facing different challenges based on their geography and demographics.

The size and scale of the NHS means that, whatever the challenge, there will always be one local area that has developed an innovative solution. In advance of the next flu season, the National Immunisation Network annual meeting could be relaunched and expanded in light of the forthcoming health reforms and new vaccine infrastructure.

Fifth, ministers should consider running a large-scale public information campaigns to raise awareness of seasonal flu. After eighteen months of public health messages about viruses, hand washing, and vaccines, ennui may have set into the public mind.

Some at-risks groups may conclude that, when compared to Covid, seasonal flu is nothing to worry about. A hard-hitting campaign that helps people understand how serious flu can be, with a focus on working age adults who are particularly vulnerable, may help change this mindset.

With a concerted effort now, ministers can help prevent a resurgence of flu next season and cement the UK’s reputation for world-leading vaccination programmes. There is no need to be caught off guard.

Lastly, every one of us can do our bit to save lives and protect the NHS. If you’re contacted by your GP this autumn and offered a flu vaccine – say yes.

July 4: The businesses that are resuming, the rationale for reopening them and the rules that they face

24 Jun

Yesterday there was huge jubilation at the news that pubs, restaurants and staycation resorts, among other facilities, will be able to reopen on July 4.

ConservativeHome has listed which ones will be opening here, but we shall also elaborate on what the guidelines are for each business – as well as explaining why some have not made the cut.

First thing’s first:

What’s clear is that it will not be “business as usual” for employers around the UK, as many will face stringent guidelines around their operations – so as to prevent further outbreaks of Covid-19.

One of these measures will be social distancing.

How far apart?

While the dreaded two-metre (six foot) social distancing rule has been revised, the Prime Minister has recommended people stay a distance of “one metre plus”; in essence, staying at least one metre apart while taking precautionary measures to reduce the risk of Coronavirus transmission.

What are these precautionary measures?

Generally businesses are advised to space out customers and staff as much as possible, improve ventilation and keep surfaces (and hands) clean.

The Government has also posted a huge amount of specific guidance for those working in different sectors, such as construction and other outdoor work, hotels and other guest accommodation and the visitor economy, as these each face their own unique challenges.

Pubs, bars and takeaway services

While most Brits cannot wait to rush back to the pub, publicans – and similar business owners – face lots of issues in reopening.

Perhaps the most controversial rule is that customers will have to give their contact details whenever they enter a pub or restaurant – in case they need to be contacted for the Government’s test and trace programme. They will also be limited to table service.

The Government’s guidance for pubs, bars and takeaway services spans a total of 43 pages. Other suggestions for these businesses (and there are many) include:

  • using screens or barriers to separate workers from each other and workers from customers at points of service;
  • calculating the number of customers that can reasonably follow social distancing guidelines at a venue;
  • working with local authorities to take into account the impact of processes, such as queues, on high streets, and
  • encouraging customers to use hand sanitiser or handwashing facilities.
Hotels and other guest accommodation

Following the Government’s announcements, lots of Brits can’t wait to book a “staycation”. But these, too, will be mired in complicated measures. The guidance for hotels and other such businesses is fairly similar to that for pubs and restaurants, with suggestions such as:

  • encouraging guests to wear masks on communal corridors;
  • considering minimising lift usage from reception;
  • closing shared facilities, such as communal kitchens, and
  • cleaning keys between guests.
Businesses in “close contact services” (hair salons)

While the Government has refused to open tattoo parlours and nail salons, it is giving hairdressers the green light. But they will be required to wear face masks and visors in order to operate. Other measures for similar companies include:

  • adapting appointments to reduce the interaction and overlap between customers;
  • creating a “one-way flow” of clients through the premises;
  • minimising contact between different workers serving a client (photographers, models and makeup artists, for instance), and
  • encouraging clients to arrive at their scheduled time of appointment.

In addition, all businesses are being encouraged to conduct a risk assessment for Covid-19 in their workplace and then share the results with employees.

The Government has asked employers with over 50 workers to publish the results on their websites, and asked them to display a notification ” in a prominent place in your business and on [their] website” so as to show the public they have taken measures.

Why are some businesses not allowed to open?

During his speech to the House of Commons, Boris Johnson stated that “close proximity venues” would have to stay closed, such as nightclubs, soft-play areas, indoor gyms and swimming pools – although he added that “the business and culture secretaries will establish taskforces with the public health experts and these sectors to help them become Covid-secure and reopen as soon as possible.”

As well as the proximity factor, the decision to reopen outdoors gyms, but not indoors ones, may reflect increasing research that summer sunlight helps to kill off Covid-19. A new study indicates that it can do this in thirty minutes.

Has there been backlash?

Those in the fitness industry have understandably been cross with the Government’s choice of businesses to reopen.

Jane Nickerson, the CEO of Swim England, called the decision “appalling” and told The Times “Many will fail to understand how pubs, restaurants, cinemas, museums and hair salons have been given the go-ahead to open on July 4 but not chlorine-filled swimming pools”.

PureGym has been equally vocal, in a statement saying: “We understand that these decisions are not easy, but it is a strange ‘war on obesity’ that sees pubs and restaurants open before gyms”.

The Government’s ban on cricket – Johnson called the ball “a natural vector of disease” – promoted concern from Greg Clark, the Tory MP, who urged the Prime Minister to “save the season“, as well as Michael Vaughan, former England cricket captain, who said it was “nonsense“.

Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, has reassured that the Government was hoping to get sports facilities open by mid-July. But there will be increasingly calls for this to be accelerated – and the Government will, in all likelihood, face increasing demands to explain why these businesses have been singled out.

Any other issues?

As always in the Covid-19 wars, the approach across the United Kingdom has varied depending on region.

In Wales, for instance, tourism providers can only take bookings for stays beginning on July 13. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, nail bars can reopen on July 6.

Nicola Sturgeon has said that pubs and restaurants can re-open from July 15, and still has the two-metre rule in place – making her perhaps the most resistant to England’s move.

So it’s “business as usual” in some senses…