Behavioural science research that can be applied to help in response to the current coronavirus crisis, involving University of Bath psychologist Dr Ben Ainsworth, has been funded as part of a major announcement made by UKRI.
The work will involve the redevelopment and adaptation of the successful website Germ Defence, developed by Professor Lucy Yardley and Professor Paul Little from the University of Southampton with Dr Ainsworth, working closely with Public Health England. Germ Defence is freely available at http://germdefence.org.
Over recent years, the website has been shown to reduce infection rates for users and members of their households during both the swine flu pandemic as well as for seasonal flu years (in a trial of over 20,000 patients). It is now being adapted in response to COVID-19, to be rolled out across the UK and internationally.
Germ Defence uses behaviour change techniques to help users adopt the most suitable infection control behaviours for them - for example, isolating infected household members, or changing the home environment to support better hygiene. In the first week it was available, it was accessed over 10,000 times, shared on social media over 1000 times, and is now being translated into over 20 languages for international use.
As a psychologist, the funding from UKRI will allow Dr Ainsworth to work with doctors, policymakers and members of the public, from everywhere that is affected by coronavirus, to make sure GermDefence is as effective as possible no matter the context. He will also lead the international dissemination for the work.
He explains: “Digital behavioural interventions like this work best at scale – so I’ve been working with volunteers to translate GermDefence into as many different languages as possible, so that as many people can access it who need to.
“Alongside this, we’ll be making sure we learn as many lessons as possible from working on GermDefence during the current pandemic. I’ll be working with Public Health England to develop guidance on using a Person-Based Approach to rapidly create and adapt materials and advice for the public during future disease outbreaks.
Professor Lucy Yardley who leads the study said: “Most people think that if a family member gets ill then it is just a matter of luck whether other people in the household get infected – but our trial of Germ Defence has shown that it is possible to protect the people you live with from also getting ill. We hope the app will save lives by helping people avoid spreading coronavirus to family members.”
This project forms one of 21 new studies into coronavirus to be funded by the UK government, which also includes the first clinical drug trial in primary care. These projects build on the UK’s world-class expertise and capability in global heath and infectious disease which have already shaped our understanding of the pandemic and is informing measures to tackle it. Combined they support the UK government’s efforts to save lives, protect the vulnerable and support the NHS so it can help those who need it the most.
UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport said: “The research community’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has been outstanding. In a matter of weeks, researchers have formed projects to develop potential vaccines, repurpose existing drugs and explore the potential for new medicines, and to examine how the virus is transmitted and causes wide variation in symptoms. Pre-clinical trials of vaccines and clinical trials of drugs are already underway. The pace at which this work has been carried out is tribute to the UK’s world-class research base and its dedication to the fight against this disease.”