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How the Covid-19 coronavirus could be ‘stopped dead in its tracks’

New Independent Sage group challenges government policy but, first, wash your hands

14 May, 2020 — By Richard Osley

Professor Susan Michie

SCIENTISTS around the world are searching for coronavirus vaccines and cures, but a professor this week said there was already a way Covid-19 could be “stopped dead in its tracks”.

Professor Susan Michie, a behavioural psychologist at UCL, told a new committee of experts that the public needed to be helped to make regular washing of their hands a habit.

“Another model of success is population behaviour change because behaviour is at the heart of the transmission of this virus, both directly from coughing and sneezing into people’s faces, but also by touching surfaces and objects that other people have touched,” she said.

“The behaviours are quite simple, they are quite discreet and if all the population adopted the behaviours that are recommended, then the virus would stop dead in its tracks.”

Professor Michie has joined the Independent Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), an alternative to the government’s own body of Sage advisers. It held a press conference over video call technology on Tuesday, and has complained of a lack of transparency in the government’s scientific decision making during the crisis.

“It’s a long while since we’ve had government campaigns about cleaning your hands in the appropriate places and time, ensuring all coughs and sneezes are caught in a tissue which is disposed of immediately,” said Professor Michie, who lives in Kentish Town.

“Not touching nose, eyes and mouth – and keeping two metres distance. It’s not enough just to tell people what to do. There has to be skills training, there has to be environmental support to ensure these become maintained, population-wide habits. The two metre social distancing is absolutely dependent on the social and material environment around them.”

She said the return to work for many on public transport poses “huge challenges”.

The experts have been brought together by Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser. They have warned that further “rapid” outbreaks would become “inevi­table” without stronger strategies to stop the virus spreading. Sir David said the group believed waiting for a vaccine was “foolish”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said while he hoped one would be discovered, but he knows this may never happen.

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