Research has compared the psychological response in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Blitz. It found that in both situations, people often acted ahead of the government measures or recommendations.
In the pre-war and the pre-lockdown periods, there was a lessening of initial anxiety around the respective threats, according to the study.
Despite war already being declared, surveys indicated the majority of people were not taking air-raid precautions. Similarly, despite reports of the virus in China, large public events in the UK such as the Cheltenham Races continued to take place.
A key similarity between the two situations at this point was the failure to learn from comparable events overseas, the study suggests.
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Study author Professor Edgar Jones, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, said: “Although the term ‘unprecedented’ has been used frequently to describe the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has significant parallels with previous threats to the public, particularly the Blitz of the Second World War.
“Lessons can be learnt from how people responded both to the Blitz itself and to the protective measures and public messaging that were issued by the government at the time.”
Documents from five departments of government for the period of 1938 to 1945 and documents released by scientific advisory groups during the current pandemic were analysed.
The study drew comparisons between the response of the British public and the government in the two situations and identified a number of similarities.
During the Blitz, the government did not predict the majority of people would prefer to shelter in their own homes rather than the safer external underground “deep shelters” that had been provided.
The paper in the Lancet Psychiatry journal states that a similar reluctance to leave home has been observed after the easing of the current lockdown – described as a form of deep-shelter mentality.
Evidence from the Blitz provides insight into how powerful this mentality is in times of threat, since the government had to adapt its shelter policy by abandoning the external deep shelters and instead provide internal steel cages to allow people to shelter safely at home, the study said.
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Prof Jones said: “In both the current pandemic and the Blitz, people often acted ahead of the government measures or recommendations. If politicians want to introduce a policy, they’ve got to listen to the public and give them a sense of engagement.
“In the Second World War, people preferred to shelter in their homes because there is a deep psychological sense of being protected at home. Similarly in the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdown was introduced it wasn’t difficult for people to stay at home because of this sense of safety gained from being at home.”
The study also provides a comparison between the threat of a second wave of coronavirus and the arrival of the V1 and V2 rockets during the summer of 1944.
In the Second World War, people had already experienced a major assault but were then expected to prepare for another. In the case of the V1 rockets, the government did not release information on the nature of the rockets.
When they did publish information and publicise protection measures, adaptation by the people followed quickly as many had already developed a form of coping strategy in the previous air raids, the research found.
This highlights the importance of transparency and clarity in communication of risk and threat if there is a second wave of COVID-19, according to the research.
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Prof Jones said: “Lessons can be learnt from communication around both the V1 and V2 rockets and from the failure of the ‘stay alert’ campaign in the current pandemic to maintain public trust.
“Clear explanations are needed for any measures going forward based on candid and objective news and, once this is provided, people who have developed coping strategies and resilience can adapt more readily.”
The study also drew a parallel between the protective measures of blackout in the Second World War and social distancing, as both measures relied on everyone taking part in order for them to be effective.
It found that in both situations, the approach of everyone being in it together proved successful.
“It’s crucial to get people to buy into protecting the community and not just themselves,” said Prof Jones.