Offering Victorians small, meaningful steps out of lockdown more regularly could help prevent people from choosing to breach coronavirus health directives, a behavioural expert says.
- Health behaviour psychologist Ron Borland says offering frequent “rewards” could help boost compliance with restrictions
- He says encouraging people to consider how they’d feel if they became a superspreader could also motivate safe behaviour
- The Government is finalising its Sunday announcement on how restrictions will ease
Premier Daniel Andrews has said Sunday’s announcement will contain mostly “social” eased restrictions for Melbourne, with more scope for expanding freedoms in regional Victoria.
Mr Andrews said he would also offer a clearer snapshot of how the state planned to further relax rules in the weeks ahead.
And as the list of liberties given back to Victorians grows, the decisions made by each individual to act in a COVID-safe way will play a greater role in preventing a third wave of infections.
Deputy director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Behaviour Change, Ron Borland, said maintaining compliance with rules would become “a real challenge” as Victoria began to move out of lockdown.
“As this goes on, it’s going to be more and more that people say, ‘I’ll just break the rules just this once, I’ve been a good boy or a good girl so far and I’ll just do it this once to, sort of, reward myself for all my good behaviour’,” he said.
“One of the best ways to guard against that is to offer people something that they can do that they couldn’t previously do, and do that as frequently as is possible, so you’re easing them up and saying ‘now you can do this specific thing that you couldn’t do before’.
“Rather than having an announcement at one point where you say ‘well there are now seven different things that you can do’ and people lose track of what they all are.”
Professor Borland said the “trail of positive steps” should be focused on offering small, safe steps that the widest possible group of people could benefit from.
He said while something like golf would not benefit a majority of the population, a slight increase in the number of people allowed to meet outdoors would.
“They’re the sorts of things that I think that actually can make a difference and they need to be things that actually apply to a reasonable proportion of the population, otherwise it’s just seen as something for somebody else,” he said.
With the roadmap released several weeks no longer seen as a firm guide to the path out of restrictions, Premier Daniel Andrews was asked on Friday how progress would be measured, and if more restrictions might be eased again on October 26.
While agreeing that the number of mystery cases would remain an important measure, Mr Andrews said the other elements had not yet been settled.
“The fact of the matter is we haven’t decided yet — there’s still meetings, there’s still all matter of fine tuning, all matter of work,” he said.
Government must maintain the ‘delicate but vital’ pact of trust
Public Health Association of Australia chief executive Terry Slevin said community compliance and an agreement to adhere to the rules was “absolutely fundamental” to tackling the pandemic.
“And that relationship has to be respectful and open and honest on all sides,” he said.
Mr Slevin said if the Government lost the trust of the community, its capacity to control the pandemic would “suffer enormously”, as could be seen in the United States.
“There’s an extraordinary example in the US where we’ve got such a powerful example of that failure to trust in government and government not being seen to be acting in the community’s interests, and the system fails,” he said.
“So fundamentally, as a result, hundreds and thousands of people have died. We’ve avoided that in Australia.
“I think everybody should be proud of that. Government should be, community should be — I’m certainly proud of the public health workforce contribution to that.
“But that trust relationship is delicate, but vital, and I think everybody needs to work constructively on that.
‘How would you feel if you became the superspreader?’
Much of the state’s attention was this week focused on the actions of a Melbourne truck driver, who unwittingly started coronavirus outbreaks in Kilmore and Shepparton while in regional Victoria for work.
While the visit was allowed, the driver breached the rules by dining at a Kilmore cafe. He also failed to disclose his stop in Shepparton to contact tracers until after a positive case was recorded in the northern Victorian city, sending hundreds of people into quarantine and nearly 5,000 to testing stations.
Professor Borland said unlike a person dieting, where the main risk of indulging in a treat is the possibility of further indulgence, the pandemic presented scenarios where one bad decision could end in catastrophe.
“One cream cake by itself probably isn’t going to make much difference, but in that case it runs the risk that it will lead to a second and a third and a fourth,” he said.
“In this case there’s a small risk of a disaster happening, that your violation will actually lead you to spread the virus and cause a huge degree of disruption to the community.
He said the media’s influence on community behaviour could vary widely across different parts of the community, but reporting that invited people to consider the position of a superspreader could be a powerful motivational force to avoid high-risk behaviour that breached the rules.
“How would you feel as a person if you became the superspreader? I would feel absolutely terrible and just about everybody in the community I think would,” he said.
“If you have that thought for yourself when you’re thinking about taking a risk, it makes it much easier to say, ‘No, I won’t take that risk.’
“Imagining the negative consequences for you if things go wrong is one way you can help people to overcome that.”
Fines less likely to curb spontaneous breaches of the rules, expert says
Professor Borland said fines had most of their effect as “symbolism” to indicate to the community the importance of the rules.
He said they were likely to be most effective in preventing large gatherings, where lots of people needed to negotiate coming together.
“Because it’s more likely that somebody in that group will say ‘hey, we shouldn’t be doing this’, so it will raise the issue,” he said.
“And once the issue is raised people will start to think about ‘well is this a good idea or not?’ and are likely to stop.”
He said he did not believe fines would have much effect on rule breaches by people who met in the park and then had some friends walking past stop to join them.
“Because people won’t think that there’s any real risk of being caught and the spontaneity of the moment takes over,” he said.