2 March 2021 

As COVID-19 vaccines are rolled out, and a roadmap for unlocking Britain is announced, new research which looked at data from over 28,000 users of the website ‘Germ Defence’ since May 2020 highlights the continued, critical importance of breaking chains of virus transmission within our homes.

Whilst the nation has taken to washing its hands regularly since the start of the pandemic, other individual behaviours, such as cleaning and disinfecting surfaces or social distancing within the home, have proved harder to stick, say the researchers behind the behaviour change website ‘Germ Defence’ [freely available from www.germdefence.org/].

In their new study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, psychologists from the universities of Bath, Bristol and Southampton, warn of the continuing risks of household transmission of COVID-19 and the continued importance of breaking chains of transmission now and in the future.

Their research analysed user-data of the website Germ Defence – a site which was developed by clinicians and scientists to increase awareness of infection control at home. Germ Defence was adapted with funding from UKRI at the start of the pandemic to help in our response to COVID-19.

Germ Defence provides simple, tailored advice appropriate to people’s different circumstances and helps people to use simple behaviour change techniques to reduce virus spread at home. This covers a variety of topics, such as the importance of opening windows to keep rooms well-ventilated, as well as reminders about cleaning surfaces and quarantining delivery packages. It has recently been updated with advice on keeping safe while attending vaccination appointments

Previous research from the team has highlighted the effectiveness of Germ Defence techniques in working against respiratory infections. To date, the site has been accessed over half a million times, from users in over 150 countries.

Results from this work suggest Germ Defence has been effective in helping people improve their habits to reduce COVID-19 virus. However, findings also suggest that whilst most people have adhered to regular hand washing, other self-reported infection control behaviours are much lower than is optimal for infection prevention.

From their study sample (a self-selecting group that the researchers acknowledge is likely to be more motivated to improve their behaviour), they found the majority of users washed their hands ‘very often’, yet were much less likely to self-isolate or wear a facemask at home if they had symptoms.

Such actions remain critical says the lead author Dr Ben Ainsworth from the University of Bath and he hopes these findings can act as a reminder to us all that we need to embed these behaviours into our daily life to help reduce the spread. Longer-term, in a post-pandemic world, he emphasises that these behaviours will continue to remain important and could help to reduce the future spread of other infectious diseases, including seasonal flu.

He explained: “We know there are a number of simple precautions all of us can take which lower the chances of COVID-19 spreading within homes. Since the start of the pandemic and the increased focus on handwashing we know that some of these behaviours have stuck, yet others have proved much harder to catch on, not least ensuring that we socially-distance from other family members if we have symptoms or test positive.

“In spite of the current vaccine rollout and the recently-announced road map for unlocking, we have to continue to reduce infection spread and Germ Defence shows a powerful and simple way in which that can be done.”

Professor Lucy Yardley from the School of Psychological Science and NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at University of Bristol, added: “Germ Defence was co-developed with members of the public to make it as accessible and helpful as possible. It has been translated into over 20 languages and is constantly updated by our expert team of clinicians, scientists and members of the public to ensure it is up to date with the latest evidence. We also have new information that can help people keep safe when attending their vaccination appointment, which for some people might be the first time out of the house for some time.”

The researchers highlight that it is vital to address barriers that some people might face in engaging with infection control behaviours, in particular financial ones, where houses are high occupancy, or where individuals have caring responsibilities which can make infection control measures harder.

Paper: Improving infection control behavior patterns in the home during the COVID-19 pandemic: an observational study of the web-based behavioral intervention ‘Germ Defence’ by Ben Ainsworth et al in Journal of Medical Internet Research (JIMR)

Further information

About UK Research and Innovation

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is the largest public funder of research and innovation in the UK, with a budget of over £8bn. It is composed of seven disciplinary research councils, Innovate UK and Research England.

We operate across the whole country and work with our many partners in higher education, research organisations businesses, government, and charities.

Our vision is for an outstanding research and innovation system in the UK that gives everyone the opportunity to contribute and to benefit, enriching lives locally, nationally and internationally. 

Our mission is to convene, catalyse and invest in close collaboration with others to build a thriving, inclusive research and innovation system that connects discovery to prosperity and public good.

About the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit [HPRU] in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at the University of Bristol 

The NIHR HPRU in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at University of Bristol is one of 14 HPRUs across England, part of a £58.7 million investment by the NIHR to protect the health of the nation. 

The NIHR HPRU in Behavioural Science and Evaluation is a partnership between Public Health England and University of Bristol, in collaboration with MRC Biostatistics Research Unit at the University of Cambridge and University of the West of England. 

Each NIHR HPRU undertakes high quality research that is used by PHE to keep the public safe from current and emerging public health threats.

About the NIHR 

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

  • funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  • engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
  • attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
  • invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
  • partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy.

The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.