A few weeks into the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, new survey data suggest that 45% of the UK public feels “fairly” or “very” scared about contracting coronavirus. But it’s also clear that some people continue to flout public health guidelines and lockdown protocol.
We know that an effective response to this pandemic relies heavily on mass behavioural change. Yet according to representative survey data collected ten days after the lockdown began, the public still falls short of the unwavering compliance needed to contain COVID-19.
Even though the UK parliament passed emergency legislation to enforce the lockdown on March 25, 30% of people are continuing to go outside for non-essential purposes. Worryingly, just 83% of people are practising sensible social distancing measures. While that sounds like a high percentage, there is no room for error when it comes to slowing the spread of this highly infectious disease. And despite pleas by politicians, doctors, retailers and even celebrities, people are still engaging in unhelpful behaviours that directly inhibit crisis management. For example, 18% of people continue to stockpile food and household products “most” or “all” of the time.
When it comes to understanding the drivers of behavioural compliance and non-compliance, statistical analysis of survey data suggests that women are more likely than men to abide by a range of guidelines. At the same time, women self-reported more fear of infection than men, as did those of middle age compared to those under 30.
According to this survey, those who self-identify as White British are also, on average, 10% more likely to practise social distancing and 20% more likely to stay indoors for all but essential purposes than those who identify as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME). This new finding may help to explain why BAME groups are so highly represented in COVID-19 statistics. Occupation appears to matter, too. Employees in private sector professional services such as law and consultancy are more likely to be working from home, while employees in manual industries like construction are less likely to do so.
It is important to note that these statistics reveal as much about the unequal conditions of employment and people’s living arrangements, and by implication the opportunities offered to those with more financial resources, as they do about “willful” individual choices.
On a psychological level, people’s personality traits may affect their compliance. Individuals scoring high for emotional stability are, on average, 17% more likely to practise social distancing than those who score low on this trait. This makes intuitive sense, given that people with low emotional stability (or high neuroticism) tend to experience more intense negative emotional reactions to stress that can impede clear or effective thinking and decision making. Similarly, conscientiousness – which otherwise denotes self-discipline and goal-oriented persistence – is a positive predictor of behavioural compliance with COVID-19 guidelines.
Low confidence in politicians
Behavioural compliance may also depend upon how confident the public feels in those governing during this crisis. In the UK, the government initially pursued a strategy known as behavioural “nudging”. This harnesses existing knowledge of people’s mental processes to alter their behaviour through conscious and subconscious persuasion and encouragement.
The public was told to avoid hand-shaking, stay home when ill, and wash their hands more regularly for 20 seconds. This singled the UK out as a control case of sorts at a time when many other nations with large numbers of cases (China, South Korea, Italy and Iran) as well as those with relatively few (Ireland, Norway and Denmark) had implemented stricter lockdown measures.
When the number of COVID-19 cases rose rapidly in the UK, more stringent protocols were soon introduced. Given the dramatic nature of this U-turn and its life or death consequences, it is unsurprising that the public’s confidence in politicians to manage COVID-19 is mixed. As of early April, only 7% have “a lot of confidence” in the UK’s elected representatives to make the right decisions about COVID-19, while 33% have “not very much confidence” or “no confidence at all”.
Public confidence in politicians is relatively stable between men and women, but it does differ across party supporters. Conservative voters who elected the current government are (unsurprisingly) much more confident in politicians’ ability to guide the country through this pandemic than other partisans. At the same time, Brexit continues to divide opinion as an enduring fault line in British politics. Only 3% of Remain voters have “a lot of confidence” in politicians to handle COVID-19 compared to 13% of Leave voters.
Health secretary Matt Hancock recently threatened more exacting lockdown rules if people continue to defy instructions. The data analysed here suggests that any measures taken to make that happen need to be nuanced, targeted and account for a range of factors.
New strategies may require further structural support for particular socio-economic groups. This will require big decisions about how, in particular, to manage long-term debt in order to provide sustained financial support for people who don’t have the option to work from home.
That said, the government could deploy more carefully implemented psychological nudges alongside their lockdown protocols. Now that data are emerging on the characteristics of people who do and do not comply, such as their gender and personality type, strategists may be able to use that information to target COVID-19 communications more effectively.
Either way, good governance during the rest of this pandemic will rely on much better cooperation between individuals at every level of crisis management.