Applying behavioural change techniques to the COVID-19 and climate emergency responses - overview

The LGA webinar, Applying behavioural change techniques to the COVID-19 and climate emergency responses, looked at how we can use behavioural change techniques in council services to work with communities and change their behaviour.

This overview of the webinar provides a summary of what each speaker presented on, followed by the conclusions and next steps moving forward.

Over 378 people attended the webinar with four speakers presenting their thoughts and reflections on the impact of the pandemic and how behaviour change has been used to ensure adherence to COVID-19 restrictions and council climate change strategies. The session was chaired by Councillor Peter Fleming, Chair of the LGA’s Improvement and Innovation Board and Leader of Sevenoaks District Council.

Councillor Fleming reflected at the start of the session around how timely this webinar is with the announcement of the government’s COVID-19 exit roadmap. The continued adherence to COVID-19 rules and exploring how behaviour change can help has been critical to help communities deal with the pandemic.

The objectives of the session were to learn about tools and techniques for delegates to take back to their councils. How do we scale up behavioural science and ensure that we use it in more services across the council?

Download the presentations from this webinar.

Increasing adherence to rules and guidance

Professor Susan Michie, Professor of Health Psychology, Director of the Centre for Behaviour Change, University College London

Professor Susan Michie introduced her wider work as the Director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL. She is also a member of the COVID-19 Behavioural Science Advisory Group and the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours, a sub-group of the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). She also sits on the Independent SAGE committee.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, government has employed interventions on a national and international scale; its effectiveness depends on the understanding of motivations and also of opportunities for behaviours such as social distancing, self-isolating and use of face coverings.

Public health interventions include enabling personal protective behaviours, the test, trace and isolate system and the more sweeping lockdown and circuit break options. The vaccine rollout is a game changer but it needs to be alongside not instead of other measures. Once community transmission is brought very low and there is population-wide immunity, restrictions can be safely eased so long as there is a good test, trace and isolate system to quickly control any outbreaks that may occur.

Behaviours and their context differ from person to person and community to community and changing them at population scale has been a huge undertaking. Situations vary such as local support, access to resources, the ability to self-isolate or work from home. It is crucial that the Government and other authorities communicate in a clear and consistent manner, using several modes (for example, visuals, social media) and with cultural sensitivity, and provide the rationale for rules.

Prof Michie used the example of breaking habits that people may have cultivated over years.

For example, evidence shows that on average people touch their faces around 20 times an hour. This is an automatic habit that needs interrupting by keeping hands below shoulders by putting them in pockets, folding arms or sitting on them until the habit is broken.  On the other hand, carrying face coverings and tissues is a more intentional behaviour and developing a new routine helps with this, including as one checks phones, wallets, keys - and masks and tissues.

The COM-B (Capability, Opportunity, Motivation – Behaviour) model allows us to ensure we fully understand the situation before taking action. This is done by finding out what needs to change in order to change behaviour – is it their capability (such as knowledge and skills) and/or opportunity (social and physical, such as time, money) and/or motivation for doing a particular behaviour. By ensuring that people have the necessary information and skills, opportunities, and motivation, you can enable someone to do the right thing. For instance, if support to access financial hardship is available, you are giving someone the opportunity to isolate.  New York City offered free local hotel accommodation with travel there and back, food and Wi-Fi to support citizens isolate effectively.

In England, the current offer of support is £500 for 14 days (less than minimum wage) and if not followed, a £10,000 fine. We should instead of threatening to punish take an enabling approach as advocated in the police’s 4 E’s: engage, explain, encourage and enforce only as a last resort.

Key principles

  • People need to know what to do and need to be confident of what the rules are. It is crucial that we avoid confusion through chopping and changing of messaging and different approaches.
  • People need the opportunity to do the things we are asking by making it as easy as possible to do so.
  • People need to trust the government and those asking them to follow advice which is often challenging and involves sacrifices. Blame and punishment on its own is not an effective strategy, undermines the national feeling of solidarity and can set up negative consequences such as decreasing testing and giving contacts when people are frightened of big fines if they are not able to isolate for financial or practical reasons. Effective role models and consistent support from within the community is much preferable.
  • Vaccine rollout may be associated with people letting down their guard re. protective behaviours. We need to explain that protection is unlikely to be 100 per cent, that immunity takes three weeks to build up and vaccination doesn’t necessarily prevent being infectious to others. We need to stress that we still need to play our part and be careful especially given emerging new variants.
UK’s ‘SAGE’ behavioural scientists’ advice

Positive approach, avoid blame and focus on enabling people, rather than relying on enforcement:

  • Provide positive feedback about the great efforts people are making to control the virus and the success these efforts are having in reducing infection rates
  • Emphasise that everyone has an important part to play in keeping infection levels low and avoid singling out particular activities, settings or people
  • Promote and support positive alternatives whenever activities that people value must be restricted
  • Help people change their environments and form new social customs to prompt and sustain new safer habits
  • Focus on helping people identify and manage risky situations rather than assessing ‘compliance’ with ‘rules’ and relying on enforcement approaches
  • Target more intensive information and practical support where needed for specific behaviours, settings and populations. Ensure that inequalities are overcome – we are all in this together and sharing these principles
Launch of COVID-19 case studies and the LGA green behaviours and behavioural change online resource

Cllr Peter Fleming OBE, Chairman, LGA Improvement and Innovation Board and Leader, Sevenoaks District Council

Today we are launching a series of case studies and resources on COVID-19 behavioural change case studies. This resource currently is a collection of case studies from local authorities using Behavioural Science. In the coming weeks, working with The Behaviouralist, it will develop to bring together these learnings with the latest academic research, guidance on how to apply these learnings in your own council, and important findings from related fields. Any best practice you would like to share around this, or questions, please contact 

The LGA has launched a resource for councils on how to make green behaviour changes in their own communities. The online resource takes a Councillor or officer through six steps of undertaking a behavioural change project. It then takes the user through a variety of green behaviours, applied to the six steps. These include behaviours in your own home, in the community and whilst on the move.

The LGA BI Podcast can be accessed with more episodes incoming over the next month with the Behavioural Insights Team, North Yorkshire County Council and North East Lincolnshire Council.

Wirral’s Community Champions

Nicola Jones, Senior Public Health Manager, Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council
Dr Rory McGill, Acting Consultant in Public Health, Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council

Nicola Jones highlighted the context at Wirral that led into the COVID-19 pandemic. The borough has a population of 330,000 people and is geographically located on a peninsular where the borough is divided by a motorway boundary with the west side generally more affluential and the east suffering from higher levels of health inequalities. At the start of the pandemic, Wirral played a key role in the repatriation of British nationals arriving from Wuhan.

Building on this experience, the council established the Wirral Community Champions programme to help with adherence and providing consistent messaging for the guidance. Before COVID-19 the council had a strong asset-based community development approach. This included a grassroot Community of Practice group that meets monthly to explore the current issues for community groups and Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) organisations to collate issues and disseminate key council information. During COVID a humanitarian cell was established early providing a platform for over 100 community organisations to work in partnership with the Council to ensure consistent messaging and gather useful community insights.

As part of the Champion programme, the council established a collection of local residents who filter information through the existing networks. There are currently 574 residents acting as champions. The council communicates with champions through weekly newsletters and the DPH weekly blog. The programme also includes 22 paid ‘Community Connector’ roles, these roles have supported the humanitarian response to COVID in a number of ways but most importantly has been the insight gathered from local communities which has led the communications response to COVID. The programme will be expanded to connectors from March 2021.

Dr Rory McGill explored the application of behavioural science principles:

Addressing uncertainty – working on combating disinformation and distributing council wide communications to increase trust while framing the issues locally. Engaging with the community – targeted outreach using quantitative data to ensure the most needed areas are engaged with. A commitment to making it bespoke, building trust and increasing levels level of self-efficacy.


Next Steps for the project and team are to launch the Engagement Headquarters as an online interactive tool for champions and reflect on the key learning from the past year by utilising LGA funding to fully evaluate the programme. Key learning has been that engagement is a two-way street and it is crucial to listen as well as disseminate narratives. It is also important to establish partnership working with elected members, community partners and volunteers.

  • Unified messaging – working with two engagement officers and the network of community champions, volunteers and connectors to ensure messaging is understood and cascade a consistent narrative across communities.
  • Message framing – writing a Director of Public Health Blog that humanises and provides a friendly and trusted face for the community to engage with the messaging on the pandemic.
  • COM-B model to explore capability, opportunity and motivation.


Hertfordshire’s COVID-19 behavioural response

Dr Michelle Constable, Head of Behaviour Change Unit, Public Health, Hertfordshire County Council

Dr Michelle Constable introduced the presentation by highlighting the focus that behavioural science is currently having across the country and in various councils, VCS and private sector organisations. Dr Constable is the Head of Behaviour Change Unit (BCU) within the authority and works across the council to support teams and departments to enable behaviour change and embed the principles in practice across the organisation.

The BCU has been delivering behaviour change across various aspects of the COVID-19 response producing guidance, briefings, campaigns and support on mental health and resilience, face coverings, alcohol consumption, social distancing and vaccine hesitancy.

Dr Constable highlighted the work the team had carried out on social distancing.

This work focused on changing high street behaviour for citizens. At the end of May 2020 with the announcement of reopening of retail shops in mid- June, the BCU were approached by the highways and communications teams with a request to develop behaviourally informed recommendations that would support social distancing in the high streets.

Planned changes included the rollout of a range of measures including widening pavements, road closures and establishing guidance and actions for the overall opening of public spaces.

The process required a behavioural analysis which was conducted using the COM-B, part of the Behaviour Change Wheel (Michie et al., 2011) collaboration with University College London (UCL).

They focused on the behaviour of social distancing in the high street and influencing adherence to Government guidelines.

The capability centred around knowing that citizens have to be socially distanced, what 2 metres looks like and to remember to carry out this behaviour even when busy.

The opportunity involved conveying that maintaining 2 metres not at detrimental or at an additional cost (e.g. extra time) and that other people are also carrying out this behaviour.

And the motivational influences included personal motivations e.g. avoiding contracting the virus or broader influences such the negative consequences on the NHS or friends and family.

The interventions recommended consisted of: social marketing campaigning, signs and posters, markings on the ground, creating one way systems, consulting with local businesses to reduce bottlenecks, and developing messaging that indicates the positive impact of the behaviour.

These interventions are being evaluated using camera technology to monitor the impact (approx.79 per cent of interactions were over 2m) and interviews with residents to understand their perceptions of the social distancing measure and changes to the high street.  The analysis is currently being finalised and will be available shortly


    This webinar took place on 23 February 2021.