At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, we heard much talk of “behavioural fatigue”, the idea that people lack the willpower to endure tough restrictions. Though it wasn’t clear where the idea had come from, it was invoked many times as a justification for delaying lockdown – and so contributed to the loss of many thousands of lives.
As psychologists who study disasters and emergencies predicted , the public showed remarkable resilience through the lockdown. Compliance was high from the start, and remained so throughout. People stayed home to protect their communities even though many suffered personally from doing so. And when Dominic Cummings broke the lockdown rules, displaying the weaknesses that the government had earlier projected onto the population, people continued to comply with them despite – not because of – Westminster.
Perhaps the clearest psychological lesson to come out of the pandemic so far is that it’s wrong to think people are mentally fragile. When a common challenge leads us to come together and support each other, we can show remarkable psychological resilience. Put simply: people will accept some suffering for a bigger cause.
So why are we seeing a variant of the “behavioural fatigue” argument all over again? The premature easing of restrictions, lack of clear regulation and inadequate test and trace system in England have led to a surge in infections. As controls are hurriedly reimposed in various parts of the country, we’re increasingly hearing politicians and pundits ponder whether people will be able to stick to a second lockdown. If they don’t, the underlying implication is that the fault lies in their psychological weakness.
Like the proverbial goldfish swimming around its bowl, we seem to have forgotten everything we witnessed first time round. We’ve forgotten the sacrifices people made for their communities, and that where compliance dipped, it was generally due to poor or confused messaging about what people should be doing, and a lack of support to make compliance possible.
Across the world, the poor were more likely to break lockdown than the rich – not because of any difference in motivation, but because staying home is a luxury not everyone can afford (and not everyone has a home). In short, the failures were those of politicians, not the public.
These failures are much more apparent second time around.
Let’s start with the question of information. One recent poll shows that, in England, remarkably only 14% of people feel that they have a very good understanding of the Covid regulations, and less than half think they have even a fair grasp (during the first lockdown the comparable figures were more than 60% and more than 90% ). This is hardly surprising given the ambiguous messaging, contradictions within the government and shifts in policy (an announcement of lockdown measures in the north-west was tweeted out late at night, with so little detail that even the relevant minister couldn’t explain what was required).
There are two elements to this muddle. People need a general understanding of the situation in order to see why new regulations are necessary. They may be prepared to suffer for a cause, but they won’t comply if there’s no clear cause to suffer for. They also need a clear and detailed explanation of what they are supposed to do. When the government switched from “stay at home” (which is behaviourally specific) to “stay alert” (which can mean anything, and hence means nothing), the rot set in.
Next, let’s consider the issue of support. During the first lockdown, in large part due to public pressure, schemes were put in place to assist people staying at home. Support for people shielding was far from perfect, but at least it was something. Since then, the issue of support seems to have mysteriously disappeared. There are no statistics available on how many people are asked to self-isolate after they test positive for coronavirus, and none available on whether they actually do so. There is certainly no attention given to how we can provide people with the resources and the help they need to make isolation a viable option.
This is equally true when it comes to the question of local lockdowns. We should avoid using the term “lockdown” – lockdowns are what you do in prisons, and suggest people have done something wrong and need to be punished (indeed Matt Hancock’s explanation that a lockdown in Oldham resulted from people “not abiding to social distancing” makes that accusation explicit.
Lockdowns make you think only of restrictions. But areas of high infection are generally areas of high deprivation. Those affected are often marginalised and vulnerable people in need of support – such as more and clearer information, accessible testing facilities, assistance for those needing to isolate and help for local businesses required to close. Language is always revealing, and never more so than in this case: we need local support packages, not local lockdowns.
If we support rather than blame those in areas of spiking infection, they won’t feel singled out, discriminated against, left behind and ignored (as is happening in places such as Oldham and Leicester ) – all of which further undermines compliance. They will feel a valued part of a national effort against coronavirus.
Will people abide by new lockdown restrictions? They certainly have the psychological capacity to do so. Whether they actually do will depend on whether the measures are equitable, whether they include the necessary forms of support, and whether it’s made clear why they’re necessary. The people will do their bit if the government does its too.
• Stephen Reicher is a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, an adviser to the UK and Scottish governments on coronavirus and professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews