‘THE ONLY WAY’ to prevent a lockdown, wrote OMT chairman Jaap van Dissel in capitals in his latest advice to the cabinet, is if everyone adheres better to the basic rules again. So if the behavior gets better. But if that is the case, where are the behavioral scientists in the crisis meeting at the Catshuis, where outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) consults with his most important advisers?
Marijn de Bruin, member of the core team of the behavioral unit of the RIVM, says when asked that he was never invited to the Catshuis. Formally, his unit does not give ‘advice’, but ‘reflections’. “That is a bit of playing with words, but we have a different position. From the start of the crisis, the behavioral unit has not been part of the formal crisis structure.”
Criticism of this is growing, because it is precisely the influence of behavior that appears to be heavily underestimated in the corona crisis. Whether it concerns the ‘disco peak’ – when people went wild after the call from Minister Hugo de Jonge (Public Health, CDA) to ‘dance with Janssen’ – or the decision in September to let go of the one and a half meters or, earlier in the summer, to store the mouth caps again. Time and again it turns out that the tremendous ‘gain’ that comes with a high vaccination coverage can be partly or completely undone by overly relaxed behavior in daily life, both by the unvaccinated and by the vaccinated.
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There are now more than 2,500 people in hospital, roughly the same as in April, when a strict lockdown with curfew was in effect. The cabinet has tried several times to stop the rapid increase in recent weeks by calling on people to behave better: first there was a stricter home working advice, the one and a half meters was made mandatory again. Last week, Rutte and De Jonge called out: please stick to the rules. It did not have much effect: De Jonge is forced to intervene earlier due to the ever-rising figures. A press conference will be held on Friday with new measures, he announced on Wednesday.
Reint Jan Renes, behavioral scientist at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, recently said on TV: “Why is it that we don’t use all that knowledge of the behavioral unit?” In March 2020, at the start of the corona crisis, Renes took the initiative together with De Bruin to set up a ‘behaviour unit’ at RIVM. Renes is no longer a member of the behavioral unit and can speak more freely. Marijn de Bruin is less outspoken: he thinks that criticizing in public is not appropriate for his position, you criticize internally. “There are also so many people who knock on the door of The Hague with their advice, and sometimes you do indeed hear more of your input than other times.”
But De Bruin prefers to emphasize the positive: “We conduct research together with all GGDs, we receive questions from municipalities, ministries, but also the NCTV. We share results and insights. That didn’t exist at the beginning.” Between sixty and seventy scientists are active in the behavioral unit, often on a part-time basis. There is also an advisory council of fifteen professors who represent as many target groups as possible: young people, the elderly and people with a migration background.
Marijn de Bruin detects a “tipping point” when it comes to the interest in his specialism: “If you only look at how often the word behavior is used.”
He also has the feeling that people listen better. “At one of his last press conferences, you often heard Prime Minister Rutte talk about dilemmas. You could hear a lot of connecting language. Language use that is ‘inclusive’. Those are things we also advised.” If you want to motivate the population for new corona measures, says De Bruin, you must first communicate clearly and honestly about what you are planning, what the dilemmas are and why certain choices are in the interest of all of us.
Yet it is difficult not to read strong criticism in the calm, factual analysis that De Bruin makes. Because if an essential step is suddenly taken, it also means that it has not happened or has not happened for a long time. Take the one and a half meter rule. “Yet the symbol of all corona rules,” says De Bruin. This was abolished in September, a few days before that the behavioral unit had advised against it. “We know from previous research that if you relax a lot, it will also become busier in certain places. And when keeping your distance becomes more difficult, people start to think: hey, nobody keeps distance anymore. Then you get a blurring of standards.”
And actually, that one and a half meters was not abolished at all: the obligation was removed, so that you could no longer be fined if you kept too little distance on the street, but it continued to exist as ‘urgent advice’. Many people don’t even know that. Moreover, it was not made easy to keep to the rules: the stickers and stripes that help keep your distance disappeared from the streets last summer. While, according to De Bruin, they are important for good behaviour. „It helps if people occasionally reminders to get. Oh yes, I have to keep my distance here. Oh yes, I have to wear a mouth cap. What also helps is if you set up the environment in such a way that the desired behavior also becomes the automatic behavior. One-way traffic, for example, so that people don’t walk past each other all the time.”
Within two months, the obligation to keep a distance of one and a half meters was also reintroduced – it has been in effect again since Wednesday. A policy that is constantly changing does not only lead to grumbling, but also to confusion, says De Bruin. “This summer there has been more and more relaxation, so there were actually fewer and fewer measures. You would expect it to become clearer for people, but that is not the case, as our studies show.”
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As far as the behavioral unit is concerned, it is better not to abolish measures too quickly, because reintroducing them is much more annoying. “Sometimes it’s better to stay a little more careful or even too careful, because you want to avoid yo-yo effects. If you always have to turn back something, there is a good chance that the support base will get a blow.” In August 75 percent of the panel members who regularly questions the behavioral unit supported the distance rule, in mid-October only 55 percent.
To prevent yo-yo effects, it is better to stay careful a little longer or even too careful
That is not irreversible, says De Bruin. “You sometimes hear: people are corona tired. That is also true, but we always see that people step up a gear when necessary. With a revival of the virus, you often see support growing again.” They must have the motivation for that, emphasizes De Bruin. “That could be: protecting each other and protecting yourself.” When the acute necessity disappears, the motivation to adhere to the basic rules disappears.
In January, at the start of the vaccination campaign, the behavioral unit already warned about this. “We see in our data that the threat that people personally experience from the virus decreases after vaccination. That they then behave more loosely, especially with loved ones and family, keep less distance and avoid the crowds less. The chance of getting infected or infecting someone yourself is of course much smaller if you are vaccinated, but it is not gone. It is clear that the risk reduction resulting from vaccination is partly negated by less compliance with the rules.”
Has the government underestimated this? De Bruin does not want to comment on that. He does say – “in general” – that it is important to continue to draw lessons from failures. “So that you are better prepared next time.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 25, 2021
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