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Citizens will comply with future lockdowns, obedience can be ‘switched back on,’ UK official says

Teresa Olivas prepares single face mask bags at Prep and Save store in Upland, Calif. on March 17, 2020. Customers scared of lockdown due to coronavirus cleaned out shelves carrying survival food, hand sanitizer and masks. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
July 06, 2023

Professor David Halpern, head of the “nudge unit” for the United Kingdom during the Covid-19 pandemic, believes citizens will comply with future lockdown restrictions after having “practiced the drill.”

In an interview on the “Lockdown Files” podcast, Halpern told The Telegraph that since the Covid-19 pandemic allowed the citizens of the United Kingdom to “practice” wearing face masks and following lockdown restrictions, the country “could redo it” in the future.

Halpern’s “nudge unit,” the Behavioral Insights Team, was recruited by Matt Hancock, former secretary of state for health and social care, to provide the government with “frictionless access to behavioral expertise.” Halpern’s unit developed slogans such as “hands, face, space,” to increase citizen compliance with Covid-19 restrictions and regulations.

Halpern told The Telegraph that the people of the United Kingdom would comply with future “stay at home” orders since they already “kind of know what the drill is.”

He indicated that the Covid-19 lockdown experience made it “much easier to now imagine” that citizens would be willing to comply with future restrictions of individual freedoms.

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Although Halpern believes that fear-based messaging is not usually effective, he argued that it can be used in extreme situations, such as a world-wide pandemic.

“There are times when you do need to cut through… particularly if you think people are wrongly calibrated,” he said.

Halpern described the tasks his unit was responsible for in his interview with The Telegraph, demonstrating how his unit was able to reinforce new behaviors on the United Kingdom’s population.

According to Halpern, his unit’s Covid-19 guideline posters provided visual prompts so that when anyone went “into a into a shop or somewhere else, it re-reminds you, it cues, it acts as a trigger for the behavior.”

Halpern explained that the government’s messaging campaign encouraged people to wear masks by reinforcing habits that made people feel “naked” when they forgot to wear a mask.

Due to the United Kingdom’s experience during the Covid-19 pandemic, Halpern believes it would be relatively easy to get people to comply with new lockdown restrictions in the future.

“In principle, you can switch it back on,” he said. “You’ve got the beginning, particularly, of what is called a habit loop: if this has happened, then you should do that.”