In the midst of the 1918 flu pandemic, with his pregnant wife lying near him, infected and close to death, WB Yeats wrote the famous lines from his poem The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; / the centre cannot hold; / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. His words are a fitting description of our own predicament. As England enters a second lockdown, people are tired and frustrated by restrictions that seem to bear no fruit. They are becoming fractious and divided; many who supported the first lockdown have fallen silent, while those who object to lockdown measures are becoming more flagrant in their opposition. The optimism of early summer feels like a distant memory.
A recent report on the BBC website captured this growing sense of dissent and disarray. Headlined “COVID in Scotland: Police break up hundreds of parties every week”, it picked out five examples of parties and gatherings to illustrate a supposed tide of excess. Two of the examples explicitly mentioned students, while the other three referred to large gatherings without identifying those involved.
Here was hard evidence that put a face to the problem: partying, flagrant rule-breaking, university students.
The problem is that, in almost every way but one, this was a misrepresentation of the truth. The story, and many others like it, have contributed to a misunderstanding of the issues around adherence to Covid rules. And adherence is critical. The government can put in place whatever restrictions it likes. It can close pubs and close shops and ban large gatherings. But if people continue to meet in their houses, travel from area to area or fail to self-isolate when required, then, quite frankly, restrictions are a waste of time.
We do face real problems with the public’s adherence to anti-Covid measures. People are beginning to doubt the effectiveness of these measures and question the point of following them. Anger, bitterness and division are increasing. These divisions are turning into political disagreements that can be mapped onto other fault lines, such as those between north and south, leave and remain.
There is undoubtedly cause for concern. Yet, as the Scottish police emphasised in the BBC report above, the great majority of people are still complying with the rules. Across the UK, this is confirmed by data from the Office for National Statistics, which shows that in most areas, adherence with restrictions such as social distancing and face coverings is somewhere above 80%, and has been holding firm in recent weeks.
Indeed, unpublished data from Scottish police shows that the number of house gatherings they were called out to has actually fallen by more than half, from 564 to 279 in the last five weeks.
Moreover, house gatherings are not the same as house parties. The latter make for more salacious stories and hence form the majority of media stories, but they account for a small minority of actual infringements. Only 12 of the 279 (4%) of callouts during the week of the BBC report involved 15 or more people. Most were people found to be slightly bending the rules, rather than brazenly flouting them. And only a small proportion of the gatherings recorded by Scottish police in that week (25 out of 279, or 9%) involved students. In fact, the gatherings police were called to included people of all ages.
There are problems with adherence to the rules, but they are not the problems we hear about in the media. Rather than a few large parties where young people are to blame, what we face is many small violations that together add up to a big issue. Non-adherence is more likely to take the form of Victoria Derbyshire, commenting (and later apologising) that she didn’t intend to follow the rule of six at Christmas, than that of a student rave.
This matters because so long as we are led to blame others, we can ignore our own responsibility; we might be “bending the rules”, but we aren’t breaking them. This is one reason why misrepresenting the problem of adherence undermines the way we respond to this problem.
But there’s another important assumption in much of the coverage of Covid rule-breaking. Many reports, including that of the BBC, present non-adherence as an issue of bad motivations, where people wilfully break the rules with little regard for the consequences.
This assumption is wrong. People often fail to act as they wish because they lack the skills to do so. One of those skills is knowing how to say “no” without causing offence when people come to hug you, sit too close to you or propose that you bend the rules in other ways. Training people in how to do so has proved an effective intervention in a series of health-related issues, from refusing drugs and alcohol to engaging in safe sexual practices.
People may also fail to act as they wish because they lack the resources to do so. This helps explain the one area in which compliance levels are strikingly low. When it comes to self-isolation, over 80% of people refuse to comply. Self-isolating is hard, particularly if you stand to lose your income or even your job. And how are you supposed to self-isolate if you’re living with others, especially in a crowded space? What about if you have caring responsibilities to others, either at home or outside? And what about getting food or essentials delivered – not to mention the effects on mental health?
Without comprehensive support for people self-isolating, expecting them to comply straightforwardly with the rules is a big, even unreasonable, thing to ask.
If we think of non-adherence to Covid rules as a problem that stems from the inability to act with goodwill (as opposed to a problem that stems from ill will), it leads to a dramatically different policy approach. The focus shifts from hectoring people to helping them, and ensuring they have the skills and resources to do what’s right. The government becomes an enabler rather than an enforcer, and this may go some way to restoring public trust – another key determinant of adherence.
Even though a second lockdown will be tough for everyone, the centre still appears to be holding. By and large, people have kept following the rules. The bad news is that, unless we change how we understand and respond to non-compliance and support people to do the right thing, things really could fall apart.
Stephen Reicher is a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and a leading authority on crowd psychology