Hello PPMA friends

Prof. Jim McManus is a Chartered FCIPD and is Vice President of the UK Association of Directors of Public Health. He is also a Chartered Psychologist, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire and has experience of managing large outbreaks and the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Jim has written a very important blog for us and it’s an excellent guideline for all HR and OD professionals, particularly those in Public Services.

“We are facing some momentous changes over the next few weeks, possibly months. We are also facing two epidemics in the UK. The first is COVID19, and the second is fear and panic. And it is entirely possible that the latter will hamper our response to slow and delay the impact of the former. The fact that it is difficult to detect the signal of the science and trustworthy advice when there is so much noise from social media and other media makes the job of leadership in these times more complicated. The fact that the science has changed, more than once, and abruptly changed (to protect us) has also added to that complexity and the need to explain that science well, clearly and consistently to maintain trust. I do trust the science, because I have read as much of it as I can.  Were my only sources the news media, I may have taken a different view.

We will get through this with the right combination of skills and tactics. First, listening to the science, second making clear and calm decisions in light of these and third, explaining to everyone what they can do.

That’s where people managers come in. Not only can you help prepare your workforces but you can promote the vital prosocial behaviour we need to get through the coming months. We are going to need several sets of key psychological and people skills in the next few months.

  • The skills to communicate and engage people well
  • The skills to explain the rationale for actions and decisions we make well
  • The skills to keep people feeling resilient
  • The skills to help people retain a strong sense of purpose, even when they may worry about the future
  • The skills to promote behaviour which promotes the common good, protects the vulnerable and emphasises we are all in this together, at a time when selfishness could take over, with disastrous consequences for the weakest and poorest

It’s important that public sector people managers and leaders know the facts, both to combat the virus and to combat the spread of fear and panic that goes with it, as part of this strategy.

We are dealing with COVID19, a coronavirus, a virus from a family of viruses that causes illness in humans of varying kinds. You can read more here. The virus is likely to have jumped species from an animal to a human (and to be honest unless you’re involved in sequencing the genetic code to make a vaccine or stop it happening again it’s pretty irrelevant which animal species it jumped from.) It was first notified on 31st December in China. You can do to www.gov.uk/coronavirus for more information.

The virus has spread rapidly, largely by droplet spread. 81% of us will get mild illness like a bad flu,14% of us more severe, 5% may need hospital care and less than 2% will die. Most people recover. But you don’t read about that in the media.

It’s new. And while there is some stuff we know, there is still stuff we don’t. We don’t yet have a vaccine. We don’t yet have antiviral drugs so treatment is for the symptoms and problems caused by the virus. And we can’t stop it altogether. And some of us can’t work from home.

So what can we do to protect our workforces and ourselves?

Well, we do know from experience of dealing with viruses like these and others that there are things which really will slow the spread of it, and this remains important for everyone, doubly so for those who have to come to work. There are things which disrupt the spread of the virus. These are all about not allowing the virus a route into your body or from one person to another. I call these the six to fix:

  1. First, washing your hands frequently and well for at least twenty seconds with good technique (we have links to videos below) . Before you leave for work, when you get to work, before all breaks, before lunch, after lunch and when you get home
  2. Not touching your face, eyes, nose or mouth so you deny the virus a route into your body. A good rule is “keep your hands below your shoulders unless you’ve just washed them well” if you find the “don’t touch” rule a challenge
  3. Staying a metre apart from people and not having handshakes and so on at meetings
  4. Coughing and sneezing into a tissue, binning it and washing your hands (or coughing into the crook of your elbow) so you deny drops from coughs and sneezes a route onto onto your hands or surfaces and then into the eyes, mouth and nose of others
  5. Decent and frequent cleaning of surfaces people touch frequently, with detergent, like lift buttons, light switches, door handles and so on
  6. Self-isolating if you have a new continuous cough and a fever so if you have the virus, you don’t spread it. And if you have something else, well you won’t spread that other.

Hand sanitiser is a reasonable second best if you don’t have soap and water. Making people use it coming into meetings and public buildings in addition to hand washing is an extra layer of defence.

Why should I do this if it’s mild?

Well, you do this because although you may have mild disease (do you really want something like ‘flu anyway?) others may get it much worse.  You protect the vulnerable. Doing so is an act of love and charity. You may not get it bad, but what if someone you loved did?

What is the government’s actual strategy?

This is as I aluded to above, surrounded by noise, myth and poor reporting. The government has recognised that we cannot stop this virus. It has also recognised that those who are older (over 60 or 70) and folk with serious underlying health conditions like weakened immunes systems, diabetes and lung disease will have more severe disease. They have taken a very precautionary approach to self isolation and social distancing, which will have business continuity implcations.

Our priority has to be to protect the vulnerable from the worst consequences of disease. It is a sign of a civilised society how well we take that seriously. So we need to make sure that the NHS capacity is kept for those who really need it.

Slowing the spread of the virus means we wont over-top the NHS capacity, we will end up with fewer infections overall and we won’t end up with vulnerable people being unable to get the best care. And it’s important then that those of us with mild illness when and if we get COVID19 look after ourselves and each other as much as we can.

It’s also important that we choose the right time to close companies, offices and business or schools too soon. And we don’t let that up too soon or too quickly. Even if we are bored and fed up. Why? Well, watch this simple video. That explains it well https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nl6tTwxzCi8

Never mind about herd immunity for now. And never mind about some of the self-proclaimed experts who claim they know best but don’t produce any evidence for it. We will get through this.  The vast majority of us who get it will recover, and if we take the steps described here the most vulnerable who get it will be given the best chance of recovery.

Other countries have stopped this virus, why haven’t we?

Nobody has stopped this virus. People have slowed it down. But nobody has stopped it. It is dangerous to make comparisons with other countries because they test people at different rates and stages and they responded at different stages. The type of testing, reliability of tracing people who’ve been in contact with infected people all varies.

Timing of what we do is everything, and an awful lot of what you have seen on social media is misleading and inaccurate. Go into “lockdown” too soon, and when you all come back out, the virus will spread again as the video above shows.

 There are lots of experts claiming government is wrong. Why aren’t you listening?

Actually a lot of those experts aren’t experts in communicable disease control. While it might be fair comment that the national strategy could be a little better explained, having lots of people shout at government that they know better without producing detailed evidence of that isn’t helping. Government is going to publish its modelling. That’s sensible. It should enable open, transparent and respectful discussion of the science from all scientific disciplines and experts of goodwill so we can all have confidence we have the best strategy for these times. But shouting “I know best” when none of us do just drives fear. Equally, you need to prompt the scientists in your organisation to explain the science in the clearest terms possible.

What are the key things for people Managers to do?

Well, I think you have five priorities;

  1. Slow the spread of the virus as much as possible so you can keep essential services running – get folk doing the six to fix and make sure you have the equipment you need for services like personal protective equipment for care services.
  2. Help with business continuity so you can plan for sickness absence. Government suggests up to 80% of people may get it with 21% sickness absence over a sixteen week period. That modelling will change as we know more. Speak to your Director of Public Health or planning group locally. What are you doing about sickness reporting, benefits and also help for employees who may be in financial hardship? You don’t need to shut your business down or stop all meetings. Many people are over-reacting. But if we did go into a period of that, how would you keep business going? And how will you ensure meetings and events you do run are risk assessed so the risk of the virus spreading in them is reduced as much as possible? Are some workforces like Fire so important you need to go the extra mile to keep them running? Time to speak to Occupational Health or your Director of Public Health.
  3. Reassurance and resilience of employees and others – there is no need to panic buy or shut down your social life. Our economy needs to keep running for us to come through this. There is plenty of food and resources for everyone if we just remember that we owe each other a care to get through this calmly and rationally. And stamp our prejudice and hate.
  4. Promoting the mental health of everyone while we run through this crisis – especially front line workers and those dealing with peoples’ anger and fear. A good resource on mental health in these times is below and a podcast on self-isolation is coming out shortly in the Behavioural Science and COVID19 podcast mini-series. (Links below)
  5. Promote the care and love of the most vulnerable – are we ensuring foodbanks have enough to distribute so nobody goes hungry, are volunteers able to check on the most vulnerable and isolated? Can you do befriending of people by phone? Actively challenge selfish and panic behaviour and panic buying. Can you create a prosocial campaign to help others and channel energy and anxiety into that?

Lastly, you could understand the dynamics of how people behave in crises. They tend to behave in ways which make sense to them because they are responding to fear, and they often respond by exerting control over the things they can control. So panic buying, those annoying folk nicking the hand sanitiser from offices and everyone moving their travel times to avoid crowds but ending up in the office early fall into that category. Understand the psychology behind these, and especially create social norms and other barriers to people behaving in ways that are harmful.

And create space where people can grieve the seismic changes to our lives that we will need to cope with for the coming season, and find ways of adjustment.

Together, public sector employers can slow the epidemic of COVID19 and protect our most vulnerable. And they can stop the epidemic of fear and panic which is making it worse for everyone, and which, if unchecked, will linger with ill effect long after we have better treatment and prevention strategies for COVID19

We will get through this.”

Where do I get more information?



You can find videos on good technique here as well as FAQs and other materials https://www.hertfordshire.gov.uk/about-the-council/news/news-archive/coronavirus-frequently-asked-questions

Mental Health advice https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/looking-after-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus-outbreak  and https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/coronavirus-and-your-wellbeing/

Behavioural science Podcasts including self isolation https://beezeebodies.com/professionals/real-world-behavioural-science-podcast/

Self isolation advice https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/self-isolation-advice/

Guidance on social distancing https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-on-social-distancing-and-for-vulnerable-people

Guidance on staying at home with possible infection https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-stay-at-home-guidance

Guidance on mass gatherings https://www.gov.uk/guidance/covid-19-guidance-for-mass-gatherings

The Psychology of Panic Buying https://www.image.ie/life/psychology-behind-panic-buying-stop-184409

Prof Jim McManus, OCDS, CPsychol, FBPsS, CSci, FFPH, Chartered FCIPD
Director of Public Health, Public Health Service, Hertfordshire County Council  & Vice President, Association of Directors of Public Health UK