We’ve heard repeatedly during the past year that until mass vaccination is achieved, the key to addressing the COVID 19 epidemic is controlling human behaviour. Yet as cases in the United Kingdom continue to spiral, with more stringent social constraints being enforced every few days, a key question remains, is anyone complying any more?
Compliance has been one of the most misconstrued and misrepresented concepts of this pandemic.
During the first wave of the virus back in the spring, there was concern that a prolonged lockdown would lead to behavioural fatigue and diminishing compliance with social constraints.
Behavioural fatigue was not a scientific concept but a political one, neither reinforced by research from prior epidemics nor by data that subsequently emerged from our lockdown (over 97 per cent showed good compliance with the rules, with no significant decline from March to May).
During emergencies, humans are primed to act in the collective interest, as we saw from the sacrifices made by people in the spring of 2020 across the United Kingdom.
It was only as the lockdown was eased that compliance started to decline, partly because people felt that the situation was safer, but other factors contributed too.
For many, the new rules were just too difficult to comprehend. While during lockdown 90 per cent of adults in the United Kingdom reported feeling they understood the rules, by August this figure was just 45 per cent in England.
Inconsistent rules across the UK nations, frequent modifications to rules, and confusion about dates of announcement, as opposed to dates of implementation, exacerbated the problem.
But the message from the Government about compliance also changed after the disclosures about the actions of Dominic Cummings, which were followed by a decline in adherence.
Returning to a single event might seem like bearing a grudge, but it was climactic for numerous reasons.
During the lockdown, the message on compliance was evident – restrictions were necessary to stop the spread of the virus, so everyone had to play their part, no excuses, no exemptions, but Dominic Cummings changed the tone – if you could find a loophole in the regulations, it somehow became acceptable and defensible to break them.
The enemy switched from being the virus itself to being the measures designed to impede the virus.
This shift in tone didn’t go unnoticed, as research at UCL showed.
The same sacrifices people had willingly made in the spring as part of a collective social responsibility suddenly seemed less necessary.
Goodwill turned to rage and resentment, largely targeted towards the Government that supported Dominic Cummings actions, and confidence in the Government to handle the pandemic took a quick downward turn in England, from which it’s never recovered since.
Trust is critical, as research has shown, it’s one of the biggest behavioural predictors of compliance during this pandemic – larger than mental health, belief in the health service or numerous other factors, and as humans, we need to trust our authorities if we’re to follow what they tell us to do.
Dominic Cummings certainly has a lot to answer for in undermining the very transparent messaging in the first lockdown.
The problem is the tier rules and the nuances of what is and is not acceptable have been quite confusing, altered far too often and have been badly worded.
And when one talks about privilege and violating the rules, the great straw that broke the camel’s back was Dominic Cummings with his breakdown of the lockdown rules, although there were others with privilege that did the same as well.
Also, all credibility and the support of the public was lost when Boris Johnson and his Government threw in their lot to defend Dominic Cummings breaking of the lockdown rules.
The Dominic Cummings moment is now recognised as the moment where the Government relinquished control of the messaging, and looking back now, it seems even more remarkable than it did at the time that Boris Johnson went to such heights to defend his man.
But it could have been so different, as other countries have proved.
Giving practical, honest, realistic information, the grounds for restrictions and the importance of working together and the possible outcomes would have set quite a different scene, and unfortunately once a scene is established it’s extremely difficult to change it.