Confusing NHS COVID-19 messaging led Brits to misunderstand virus threat

  • Date

    Wed 22 Dec 21

portrait photo of Dr Marie Juanchcich

Confusing COVID-19 messages led more than half of British people to believe “at risk” meant vulnerable groups were more likely to catch the virus, University of Essex research has suggested.

The study showed ambiguous NHS statements meant the public misunderstood the threat posed by COVID-19 and possibly led to lower adherence to protective measures, such as social distancing and mask wearing.

Those studied understood that people at “higher risk” are more likely to be hospitalised, but Dr Marie Juanchich, from the Department of Psychology, says many also believed that people in this group are more likely to contract the virus and be contagious.

A consequence of this is they tended to believe the rest of the population - like children and younger adults - are less likely to catch the virus and spread it than the vulnerable.

The paper, Ambiguity and unintended inferences about risk messages for COVID-19, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied - found once misconceptions had taken hold it was difficult to correct.

Dr Juanchich said: “In any risk message, what exactly is at risk must be clearly specified.

“For example, for COVID-19, we talk about being at ‘higher risk’ but it is not clear whether the risk is about the possibility of becoming infected by the virus or the possibility to be seriously ill.”

As part of the study Dr Juanchich and colleague Dr Dawn Holford looked at NHS, American and Australian statements about the pandemic and found that they varied in levels of ambiguity.

The research specifically looked at the UK messaging which highlighted those aged 70 or older, pregnant women, and those with underlying conditions are “at a higher risk”.

It stated: “Coronavirus can make anyone seriously ill.

“But some people are at a higher risk and need to take extra steps to avoid becoming unwell.”

In contrast the US Government used a much clearer message.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said: “Older adults and people who have severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes seem to be at higher risk for developing serious complications from COVID19 illness.”

The research was launched weeks after Britain was plunged into lockdown in April 2020 and ran until February 2021 – with 2,155 taking part as the nation was under varying restrictions.

On average 56 to 60 per cent of those surveyed thought higher risk meant a stronger possibility of infection.

It was discovered presenting a less ambiguous message was not enough to correct this misinterpretation as the misconception had already taken hold.

However, when the team created information about a new mock-virus and used clear messaging to spell out what ‘at risk’ meant only 19 per cent made the same mistake.

It is now hoped the information uncovered by this research will help guide Government policy and shape future risk messaging around COVID-19 variants.

Clearer information could help support the roll-out of vaccination and other protective measures by disambiguating the risks involved.

This would help as well in explaining which risks different measures are targeting.

Dr Holford said: “Because ambiguous messages are difficult to correct once people have settled on their own interpretations, it would be better to present clear messaging about risks at the start of a new threat, before misinterpretations can occur.”