Behavioural evidence to inform the COVID-19 pandemic response: Ireland's Social Activity Measure (SAM)

April 5, 2024

Behavioural Public Policy, First View , pp. 1 - 15

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Humankind's main defence against the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2), besides vaccine development, was co-ordinated behaviour change. In many countries, co-ordination was assisted by tracking surveys designed to measure self-reported behaviour and attitudes. This paper describes an alternative, complementary approach, which was undertaken in close collaboration with officials in the Department of the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister). We adapted the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM) to develop the ‘Social Activity Measure’ (SAM). The study was conducted fortnightly for 18 months, with findings delivered directly to the Department. This paper describes the method and shows how SAM generated a detailed picture of where and why transmission risk occurred. By using the DRM, we built aggregate measures from narrative accounts of how individuals spent their previous day. SAM recorded the amount, location and type of social activity, including the incidence of close contact and mask-wearing, as well as compliance with public health restrictions by shops and businesses. The method also permitted a detailed analysis of how public perceptions and comprehension are related to behaviour. The results informed government communications and strategies for lifting public health restrictions. The method could be applied to other future situations that might require co-ordinated public behaviour over an extended period.