Coronavirus: Scientists warn of negative consequences of mass testing

Mass public testing for coronavirus could have a negative impact on compliance with social isolation and other protective behaviours, scientists have warned.

Professor Madelynne Arden at Sheffield Hallam University, and Professor Christopher Armitage at the University of Manchester, wrote of their concerns to England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and others.

The behavioural scientists say there is a risk of people who have had the virus – and are likely to have immunity – returning to normal life, and being followed by others who have not.

In an email they told the officials: “News that home/community testing for Covid-19 will soon be possible seems really positive, and as a family who developed mild symptoms we, like others, would be keen to have this test to know if we have immunity.

“However, as professors, HCPC-registered health psychologists and experts in behavioural science, we are very concerned about the likely effect of mass public testing for Covid-19 on people’s reactions to public health messages to stay at home and socially isolate.

“It may well be that these issues are already being given careful consideration, in which case we apologise for taking up your valuable time, but we felt compelled to write in case they are not.”

Another concern is that people who are fed up with isolation will go out and simply claim to have had the infection.

The scientists also raise concerns that people who are fed up with being in isolation will claim to have had the infection in order to get out and about.

The professors add: “Making tests easily available in the community could therefore have detrimental effects on public social isolation and therefore on the spread and containment of Covid-19.”

They urge careful planning on how the tests will be managed.

Professor Chris Whitty
Professor Chris Whitty (Leon Neal/PA)

The scientists say social norms to isolate are extremely important, pointing to the weekend of March 21/22, when a large number of people were seen out and about despite government guidance.

The email explains: “Clearly the Government expected that people would make rational assessments of personal/family risk and that, once they realised that physical separation would not be possible in a tourist location, they would turn around and go back home.

“But they did not.

“A likely reason for this seemingly contrary behaviour is that other people being out and about created a social norm that this was OK and safe: ‘if other people are doing it, then it’s probably safe for me as well’.”

The email was also sent to shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth, Public Health England chief executive Duncan Selbie and other officials dealing with the pandemic.

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