W We have heard repeatedly over the past year that until mass vaccination is achieved, the key to managing the Covid-19 epidemic is controlling human behavior. However, as cases in the UK continue to spiral, with tighter social restrictions being implemented every few days, a key question remains: is anyone complying more?
Compliance has been one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented concepts in this pandemic. During the first wave of the virus in the spring, there were concerns that a prolonged lock down would lead to “behavioral fatigue” and decreased compliance with social restrictions. In fact, “behavioral fatigue” was not a scientific but a political concept, supported neither by previous epidemic research nor by data that emerged after our confinement (more than 97% showed good compliance with standards, without a significant decline From March to May). During emergencies, humans are truly prepared to act in the collective interest, as we saw in the sacrifices made by people in the spring of 2020 across the UK.
It was only when the blockage eased that compliance began to decline. In part, people felt the situation was safer. But other factors also contributed. For many, the new rules were simply too complex to understand. While 90% of adults in the UK said they felt they understood the rules during the lock down, in August this figure was only 45% In England. Conflicting rules in UK nations, frequent rule changes, and confusion over announcement dates (as opposed to implementation dates) exacerbated the situation.
But the government’s message on accession also changed after the revelations about Dominic Cummings’ actions, which were followed by a decreased compliance. Going back to a single event may seem to hold a grudge, but it was pivotal for many reasons. During the lock down, the message about compliance was clear: social restrictions were vital to stopping the spread of the virus, so everyone had to do their part; no excuses, no exemptions. But Cummings changed the tune: If he could find a loophole in the rules, it somehow became acceptable (and defensible) to break them. The enemy went From being the virus itself to being the measures designed to stop the virus.
This change in tone did not go unnoticed, as our research at UCL showed. The same sacrifices that people had voluntarily made in the spring as part of a collective social responsibility suddenly seemed less necessary. Goodwill morphed into anger and discomfort, largely directed at the government that defended Cummings’ actions. Confidence in the government to handle the pandemic took a downward turn in England, From which it has not recovered since. Trust is crucial, as Research has shown which is one of the biggest behavioral predictors of compliance during this pandemic – larger than mental health, belief in the health service, or many other factors. As human beings, we must trust our authorities if we want to follow what they tell us to do.
Other factors are also important as predictors of compliance. Some of these have been demonstrated during previous pandemics: older adults and women they are usually better at following the rules to stop the spread of viruses. But others have emerged more specifically during Covid-19. The most privileged within society (richer and more educated) did more during the first confinement as their privilege supported their ability to follow the rules: more opportunities to work From home, spacious houses and gardens to lock in, and a solid infrastructure. From good social support networks to scheduled food deliveries.
But as the pandemic has continued, this same privilege has been associated with an increased propensity to break the rules. The money has bought a way out of social restrictions, From providing second residences at home for retirement (taking new strains of the virus with them), to allowing holidays abroad to escape stricter UK measures (along with nightly covert escapes when quarantined).
The privilege has led to the belief that one can guess the virus by meeting friends against the guidelines because they are “sensible” or “will do no harm.” Ironically, the more privileged confess that they understand the rules less. As with Cummings’ actions, the focus is on the wrong enemy – his mission is not to stop the virus, but to escape measures designed to control it.
So as we enter a new year and another set of new rules, is there any hope that we will regain the trust and compliance with which we started almost a year ago? Fortunately, the answer is yes. As cases rose in the autumn and the UK entered new lock downs, compliance really increased. When we are reminded of the urgency and danger of the situation, not just with words From politicians but with clear actions, such as tougher measures, our sense of duty can return. But there are also lessons we can learn From the past year to help us in the months ahead.
Everyone must play their part, regardless of status or privilege. Any exception or modification of the rules can affect the compliance of others and sends a message that the rules are mere guidelines and personal sacrifices are not necessary. Messaging must be clear, consistent, and carefully targeted. We are all motivated by different factors: for some, messages about personal risk From Covid-19 will be more powerful, while for others, a sense of collective duty (“save your grandmother”) will be more effective.
We all also rely more on different sources, be they politicians, health professionals, or community leaders. So a plurality of voices is vital to get that message across. Compliance must also be enabled. Punitive noncompliance measures are of limited effectiveness when people face tangible barriers, such as unmanageable financial loss From missing work or unmissable caregiving duties for vulnerable family members. So we need compassion, understanding, and practical solutions.
Finally, compliance should be modeled as the norm. At present, nine out of 10 people they believe that they are fulfilling more than the average. News headlines that say “tens of millions follow the rules” are understandably less exciting than stories of police raids on raves and other infractions. But we must be careful to imply that the actions of a minority represent the behaviors of the entire population. Modeling good compliance is everyone’s responsibility. So when we start practicing our New Years resolutions, let this be the first on all of our lists and let this be the resolution we work the hardest to keep.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism