Over the last year, we have learned constantly that monitoring human actions before mass vaccination is achieved is the secret to handling the Covid 19 epidemic. But as cases in the U.K. continue to increase, Every few days, and tighter social constraints are imposed, a central question remains: is anybody even complying anymore? Compliance has become one of this pandemic’s most overlooked and misrepresented terms.
There were concerns during the first wave of the virus in the spring that a prolonged lockout would result in “behavioral fatigue” and decreasing compliance with social restrictions.
In fact, “behavioral fatigue” was not a scientific term, but a political one, not backed by previous disease research or the evidence that later emerged from our lockdown (over 97 percent showed good compliance, with no significant decline from March to May).
People are still able to behave in the common interest in emergency situations, as we saw in the sacrifices made in the spring of 2020 by individuals across the UK.1 It was only when the lockout was relaxed that enforcement started to decrease. People felt, in part, that the situation was better.
Yet other variables contributed as well. The new rules were just too difficult to grasp for anyone. Although 90% of adults in the UK said they understood the rules during the lockout, only 45% did so in August in England.
The problem was compounded by contradictory laws across the nations of the United Kingdom, regular revisions to the rules, and uncertainty over the date of notice (as opposed to the date of implementation). But after reports about Dominic Cummings’ actions, which were accompanied by a drop in enforcement, the government’s message about compliance also shifted.
Going back to a single occurrence may sound like a grudge, but for several reasons, it was crucial.
The message on enforcement was clear during the lockdown: social constraints were important to avoid the spread of the virus, so everyone had to do their part; no excuses, no exceptions.
But Cummings modified the tone: it somehow became appropriate (and defensible) to violate them if you could find a loophole in the rules. As our research at UCL revealed, the enemy was no longer the virus itself, but the steps designed to suppress it, and this shift in tone did not go unnoticed. In the spring, the same sacrifices people had made enthusiastically as part of a mutual social obligation seemed suddenly less important. Benevolence turned to rage and indignation, mainly aimed at the government that defended the actions of Cummings. In England, confidence in the government to deal with the pandemic took a steep downward turn, from which it has not recovered since then. Trust is important because research has shown that during this pandemic it is one of the strongest behavioral predictors of compliance: greater than mental wellbeing, confidence in the health service, or various other variables.
As human beings, if we are to obey what they tell us, we must trust our authorities. As predictors of compliance, other factors are also significant.
In past pandemics, some of these factors have been shown: older adults and women appear to be better at following laws to prevent viruses from spreading.
But some also appeared during Covid-19 explicitly. During the initial lockout, the more affluent in society (wealthier and more educated) became more obedient because their privilege supported their desire to obey the rules: more opportunities to work from home, spacious homes and gardens to lock themselves in, and strong infrastructure, from good networks of social support to scheduled food deliveries.
From having second homes in the nation to retreat to (bringing new strains of the virus with them) to allowing vacations abroad to avoid the tougher measures in the UK, money bought a way out of social restrictions. (Along with late-night, covert escapes when quarantines were placed in place). Privilege led to the illusion that by joining friends against the directives of the virus, one could leave behind the virus.