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Roisin Shortall: Human behaviour, not just data, must be factored into the Government Covid strategy

Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall says NPHET and the Government are not factoring in human behaviour and our social structures in their attempts to stop Covid-19.

Róisín Shortall Social Democrats TD

COVID-19 HAS BEEN detrimental for our nation’s wellbeing. Trapped in cycles of limiting social contacts and working from home, people have been deprived of that most essential element which makes us human: social connection.

Now we are facing into another uphill battle in the latest lockdown cycle – six weeks of staying at home.

The loneliness impacts all of us. It slips in between the busy moments and the gaps in our to-do lists. When you wish you could give an old friend a hug hello or call in to your mam for a chat and a cup of tea. The stolen memories of birthdays and weddings or the chance to say goodbye when the end arrives for a loved one.

Support bubbles

We are human, and humans need social contact to survive. For people who are living alone, Covid-19 and these next six weeks may feel even bleaker. The Government has finally introduced support bubbles, a closed circuit for people who live alone so that they can form a single unit with another household.

When the support bubbles were first announced on Monday, they were exclusive to special categories of people: single parents or people sharing custody of children, partners of those with dementia, people requiring care, or those living alone with mental health difficulties.

While first writing these guidelines, what justification did the Government have to not allow, for example, a 30-year-old living alone and possibly working from home to have a friend or boyfriend or girlfriend to visit? Is their loneliness any less real or valid?

It was unreasonable to have denied them completely of any social contact. Thankfully, the Government responded to these concerns on Tuesday and broadened the protocols to include all people living alone.

Although the rules around bubbles have since changed, the lesson learned from the misstep remains: If Government guidance does not reflect the reality of what it means to be human, then people will be likely to bend and break the rules.

Representative voices

Unfortunately, support bubbles aren’t the only area where it appears that human behaviour was simply not considered during the deliberations on Covid-19.

Last Saturday, NPHET met members of Government to present them with the evidence and modelling that showed the country needed to move to Level 5. The meeting included the three coalition party leaders along with three other ministers. Six men in total.

On NPHET’s side were Dr Tony Holohan, Dr Ronan Glynn, and Prof Philip Nolan. They were also joined by the HSE’s Paul Reid. Add four men to the previous six.

This is what the group has looked like that has taken every major decision for Ireland over the past seven months. They decide the best strategy for mitigating the impact of Covid-19, and they balance the nation’s priorities in terms of public health, the economy and our social lives.

It is striking that there is not a single woman sitting in this group, nor is there any expert from any field other than public health.

Behavioural psychology

Clearly, the case numbers and mathematical modelling are incredibly important. They give us a much-needed big picture of the trajectory of the virus across Ireland. But we need to also consider how likely people are to follow the guidelines and what is reasonable to expect of them.

It is this piece of the puzzle, the behavioural psychology, that seems to have been ignored around the decision-making table.

Perhaps with a better-rounded perspective at the table, that may not have been the case. Maybe with the input of an expert in behavioural science and psychology, for example, the need for support bubbles would have been considered months ago during the first serious lockdown.

Just maybe, with some consideration of human behaviour, our Government leaders and public health experts could have predicted in advance that the complete absence of any testing or monitoring of airline passengers entering the country would not encourage people to restrict their movements.

That in fact, as we saw in the case reported this week in which one person returning to Ireland infected 56 other people, there would be a high probability of incoming passengers transmitting the virus throughout our communities.

If the Government can’t get the public on their side, then bringing down case numbers will continue to be a moving target.

Responding to Covid-19

These next six weeks need to be used to devise a clear strategy that includes a properly functioning rapid testing system, a fully resourced tracing system, testing at airports as well as a serious all-island approach.

We cannot continue to live in cycles of upsurge-lockdown-upsurge-lockdown. With a vaccine seeming like a medium-term prospect, we need to take all actions necessary now to hunt down the virus and break the chains of transmission. Only then will we be able to live our lives with some semblance of normality.

It is on the Government now to win the hearts and minds of the public. Creating accessible and tailored messaging for different cohorts, which takes wellbeing into account, will go much farther than layering on penal fines for breaking the rules.

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So I appeal to the Government to reach out to other diverse voices, involve more women and broader expertise in deliberations, take account of the nation’s wellbeing and how human behaviour plays into each individual’s decision-making, and create a strategy for how we can live – not just exist – while working to mitigate the virus.

Róisín Shortall is a TD for Dublin North West and co-leader of the Social Democrats. She is the Party Spokesperson on Health, Finance, and Public Expenditure and Reform. Throughout her career, Róisín has been particularly vocal on social justice issues, healthcare in all its forms, and good governance. Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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About the author:

Róisín Shortall  / Social Democrats TD

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