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Harnessing behavioural science in public health campaigns to maintain ‘social distancing’ in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: key principles
  1. Chris Bonell1,
  2. Susan Michie2,
  3. Stephen Reicher3,
  4. Robert West4,
  5. Laura Bear5,
  6. Lucy Yardley6,
  7. Val Curtis7,
  8. Richard Amlôt8,
  9. G James Rubin9
  1. 1Department of Public Health, Environment and Society, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London, UK
  2. 2Centre for Outcomes Research and Effectiveness, University College London, London, UK
  3. 3University of St Andrews, St Andrews, UK
  4. 4University College London, London, UK
  5. 5London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK
  6. 6University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  7. 7London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London, UK
  8. 8Public Health England, London, UK
  9. 9NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Emergency Preparedness and Response, Department of Psychological Medicine, Weston Education Centre, King’s College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Chris Bonell, Department of Public Health, Environment and Society, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London WC1H 9SH, UK; chris.bonell{at}

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Coronovirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), like Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), is an infection arising from a coronavirus. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in recent times in terms of the global spread of infection and the resultant morbidity, mortality and burden on health systems.1 2 In the absence of a vaccine, reducing transmission of the COVID-19 virus requires rapid and extensive behaviour change to enact protective behaviours3 and ‘social distancing’ across whole populations. Although ‘social distancing’ is the current most used term, it actually refers to maintaining physical separation by reducing the number of times people come into close contact with each other across whole populations.4 Social distancing applies regardless of infection status and is thus distinctive from quarantine or the isolation of those with suspected or diagnosed infection, which is also an important element of infection control.5 6

Governments across the world are implementing a diverse range of interventions to promote adherence to social distancing measures, which include elements of education, persuasion, incentivisation, coercion, environmental restructuring, restriction and enablement.7 8 Interventions have been developed rapidly and could not be informed directly by evidence, given the novelty of the virus and rapid spread of the pandemic.9 Despite this lack of direct evidence, a body of behavioural science exists which can usefully inform the current interventions and promote adherence to these restrictive measures. This body of science has been developed through the study of other infections (including other coronaviruses such as MERS and SARS), other areas of health and other areas of behaviour. This body of science suggests a number of principles which could ensure that interventions are more likely to achieve their intended outcomes and less likely to generate unintended harmful consequences.

As a group of behavioural and social …

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  • Contributors CB drafted the paper based on an oral and email discussion involving CB, SM, SR, RW, LB, LY, VC, RA and JR. SM, SR, RW, LB, LY, VC, RA, JR edited the paper. CB finalised the draft and is the guarantor for the paper.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests JR and RA are affiliated to the National Institute for Health Research Health Protection Research Unit (NIHR HPRU) in Emergency Preparedness and Response at King’s College London in partnership with Public Health England (PHE), in collaboration with the University of East Anglia. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR, the Department of Health and Social Care or Public Health England.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.