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How the UK is Slowing the Spread of COVID-19

By: Sai Srihaas Potu

The outbreak of the 2019 coronavirus disease has become a public health emergency of international concern. The number of COVID-infected individuals and related deaths continues to rise rapidly. Encouraging people to adopt and sustain preventative behaviors is a central focus of public health policies that seek to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

COVID-19 is a serious threat to global health and has caused widespread concern around the world. In the absence of approved treatments for COVID-19, preventative strategies and hygiene behaviors such as stay-at-home policies, avoiding touching the face, and repeated hand washing are effective options in the fight against COVID-19.

Behavioral economics has recently received a great deal of attention in public policymaking. This field of economics uses insights from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive sciences to explain how people’s behaviors deviate from the rational choice theory and when and why people’s short-term decisions sometimes undermine their long-term interests. Behavioral economics has shed new light on a range of risky and preventative health behaviors. It also has considerable potential for providing a valuable perspective to better understand and explain COVID-19-related behaviors.

A behavioral economics concept can be used to better understand a person’s behavior during this pandemic. Nudge theory is a concept used in behavioral economics that proposes ways to influence people's choices and behaviors through subtle changes in the environment or context where decisions are made. Nudge theory could help people make better choices, reduce health issues, and enforce the habits we need to build a more sustainable world. In a time of unprecedented change, we have an opportunity to think critically about the default settings in our world.

The UK government has even decided to implement this theory in order to better sustain the spread of COVID-19. By using the nudge theory the government is placing the responsibility for containing the coronavirus on the public. Government authorities have told the UK public that most people will contract the coronavirus, that there will be many fatalities, and that the aim is to achieve herd immunity against the coronavirus within the UK. The UK’s approach is different from many other countries who want to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, minimize the number of people with the coronavirus, and minimize the number of fatalities.

The UK government drew advice from experts including virologists, epidemiologists, and behavioral scientists who suggested that the UK should apply the nudge theory in order to make people individually responsible for containing the coronavirus by washing their hands, coughing into tissues, and self-isolating if they have symptoms. The experts advised the UK government to not do what other countries are doing such as closing schools, universities, and large events.

However, there is no proven evidence from previous studies that can prove that the nudge theory will be effective in containing the coronavirus. It is difficult to find any randomized controlled trials, systematic reviews, or meta-analyses showing that nudge theory works in the context of infections or illnesses. Relying on the public to limit the peak of the coronavirus is a big risk because of the lack of actual published evidence showing that this works in the context of the coronavirus or similar infections. This means that mathematical modeling is based on assumptions from the nudge theory about how people will behave but the assumptions are unlikely to be accurate.

With no proper evidence, the UK government is taking a huge risk by implementing the nudge theory. Scientists still don’t know whether previously infected patients are immune to the coronavirus. This poses a huge threat to healthcare in the UK as people with the coronavirus will place a big strain on the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) by increasing the need for intensive care. Relying on the public to contain the coronavirus through social distancing and sanitary precautions is another huge risk that could backfire.

However, this huge risk is paying off in the UK. After the implementation of that policy, the number of new cases in the UK hasn’t risen over 2000 in nearly a month. This is a significant achievement for such a populous country. Nevertheless, implementing the nudge theory in other countries around the world is still a huge risk that could lead to more severe consequences than before. Without adequate resources and public support, countries will struggle to sustain the spread of COVID-19 and the situation will only get worse.

There have been prior attempts to utilize the nudge theory to address issues in the medical field, particularly during pandemics and other medical issues. However, few cases have demonstrated the usefulness of the nudge theory for enhancing the health consciousness of the public. The growing field of behavioral economics has recently received a great deal of attention in public policymaking. With COVID-19 cases on the rise and the second wave in sight, behavioral economics might provide politicians and researchers with a different type of solution in order to tackle the pandemic and sustain its spread.


1. Biran A, Schmidt WP, Varadharajan KS, Rajaraman D, Kumar R, Greenland K. Effect of a behavior-change intervention on handwashing with soap in India: a cluster-randomized trial. Lancet Global Health. 2014.

2. Loewenstein G, Asch DA, Friedman JY, Melichar LA, Volpp KG. Can behavioral economics make us healthier? BMJ. 2012.

3. Thaler RH, Sunstein CR. Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press. 2008.

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