Watch: Compliance with restrictions at highest point since first lockdown
The government has ramped up its tough messaging on Brits breaking COVID rules in recent days.
Priti Patel, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock have repeatedly condemned so-called “Covidiots” and warned lockdown measures could be made even stricter.
But according to some scientists, repeatedly using such “tough messages” is potentially counterproductive and even “dangerous”.
Instead, they are urging the government to focus on promoting and praising the number of Brits who are sticking to the rules.
Writing on Twitter, Sage member Stephen Reicher, an expert on behaviour, wrote: “Where is the recognition that most people are out and about because they have to go to work, their employers won't let them work from home and they would have no money if they did? Where is the provision of resource to ensure that everyone can stay home and stay safe?
“All in all, don't just agree with the idea of treating the public as the solution rather than the problem and of supporting them rather than threatening them. Do it!”
So how well are Brits really behaving?
UCL researchers working on the COVID-19 social study of 70,000 participants found compliance has been on the up, especially as stricter measures have been brought in, with particular improvements since the start of December when news of the new variant became widespread.
Majority compliance with the rules – following them with some bending of the rules – is being reported by 96% of people, which is an improvement since the start of the autumn across all demographic groups.
Complete compliance is lower but still being reported by the majority of people – 56% for the week ending 10 January – and is now at comparable levels to back in May 2020.
On 23 March last year – the date that the first national lockdown began – close to 100% of respondents in the study said they were following the rules to a large extent, dipping to in the region of 90% for when restrictions were eased throughout summer.
This chart highlights the vast majority of Brits are, in fact, by and large sticking to the rules.
Those levels of compliance only grew once new restrictions were later put in place – including the rule of six and tiered regions – remaining steady at roughly 90% throughout the rest of the year and into December.
While complete compliance levels have dipped, they saw an uptick when new restrictions were brought in over summer and remained relatively steady – apart from a slight fall during the second lockdown in November.
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown
Compliance has been highest when people have been living in the highest tier where rules are strictest, but lowest in Tier 2, where restrictions are looser and may be more open to interpretation.
Looking at the specific rules, less than 1% of people say that they never wear a face mask where it is recommended, with 93% reporting that they always do it.
The high levels of compliance appear at odds with some members of the government who have focused on rule breakers as the cause of a further spread of COVID – and a potential fresh batch of tough restrictions.
‘Don’t take the mickey’
Earlier this week, health secretary Matt Hancock urged people not to “take the mickey” out of the restrictions, saying the current rules were always “under review” but “what really matters now is the degree to which everybody follows the existing rules”.
He said some were clearly “stretching that rule”, telling BBC Breakfast: “People should not take the mickey out of the rules and they shouldn’t stretch the rules, people should respect the rules, because they’re there for a reason and that’s to keep everybody safe.”
The home secretary also said this week that a minority of the public are “putting the health of the nation at risk” as she backed a tougher police approach to lockdown rules, while Boris Johnson has also spoken of people “flouting” and “brazenly defying” COVID restrictions.
But Sage member Reicher hit out at the “problematic” and “dangerous” assumptions made by ministers.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Reicher said that some people who are self-isolating do not have available resources and support around them, leaving them with no choice but to carry out tasks such as supermarket trips themselves.
Arguing that the government “should highlight the remarkable and enduring resilience of the great majority of the population”, Reicher wrote that simply blaming the public for the spread of COVID “avoids acknowledging the failures of government to provide the support necessary to follow the rules”.
He added: “Additionally, one overlooks the fact that some of the rules and the messaging around them, may be the problem (such as encouragement to go out to the pub – doing one’s “patriotic best” according to the PM – and to return to work after the first ‘lockdown’).
“It is particularly misleading and unfair to ask people to do things and then blame them for doing so.”
Lead author of the UCL study, Dr Daisy Fancourt, said: “The levels of compliance we are seeing are high and improving week on week.
“This suggests that the increasing cases we are seeing now cannot be blamed solely on individual behaviours and instead raises the question as to whether the current rules are going far enough to stop the spread of the new variant.”
Watch: Health secretary pleads with public to follow COVID rules