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The headlines would have you believe Britain is a nation of rule-flouting “Covidiots”.
But the UK’s compliance with lockdown measures has been predominantly positive, with concern about the virus at the forefront of most people’s minds in the weeks since it began.
Two studies totalling more than 100,000 people suggest the public are steeling themselves for more of the same. That may be just as well – Boris Johnson on Monday emerged from his own period of ill health to warn that we could not afford to lift the social distancing rules that have brought our way of life, and large parts of Britain’s economy, to a halt.
One piece of research saw 75,000 responses collected from 34,444 health and wellbeing app users and shared with the NHS and data scientists at the universities of Liverpool and Manchester. It showed growing compliance with, and acceptance of, lockdown rules.
And a University College London study of 75,000 people shows consistently high compliance with in the government guidelines.
Some people even feel the lockdown could be stricter. Parents say they could continue homeschooling their children if they feel schools are reopened too early.
There are exceptions. People are still being fined and arrested for breaching the restrictions and for acts such as spitting at frontline workers. Lambeth Council’s response to 3,000 people amassing on Brockwell Park with many sunbathing or in large groups over a weekend was to (temporarily) close the green space.
Even government officials have been publicly named and shamed for breaking the rules with South Wales Police hitting out at MP Stephen Kinnock for visiting his father, former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, on his birthday. Meanwhile, the Derbyshire force dyed the Blue Lagoon in Buxton black to deter groups of people from gathering at the beauty spot.
But a more dramatic picture is unfolding across the pond, with protesters gathering to demand the lockdown measures are lifted, and dismissing the reasons behind it as hype. Last week Melissa Ackison defied the lockdown to attend a protest in Ohio with her 10-year-old son, telling reporters: “It enrages something inside of you.” She added she had “no fear whatsoever” of contracting the virus.
In places like Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia, small-government groups, supporters of president Donald Trump, anti-vaccine advocates, gun rights backers and supporters of right-wing causes have united behind a deep suspicion of efforts to shut down daily life to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As their frustration with life under lockdown grows, they’ve defied social distancing rules in an effort to pressure governors into lifting them.
Though a recent survey from the Associated Press notes that most Americans do not believe it is safe to ease the restrictions any time soon, sporadic outbursts continue to occur across the country. On Wednesday, a few dozen protesters took to the streets of New York, with one heard yelling: “You want to stay at home, stay home, the rest of us want to go back to work.”
In Texas, several hundred people rallied in the capital chanting: “Let us work.” Many demanded an immediate lifting of restrictions in a state where more than a million have filed for unemployment since the crisis began.
France, too, has seen rioting amid lockdown tensions, and in Italy organised looting of supermarkets has taken place by protesters claiming they have been left unable to feed their families.
Professor Stephen Reicher of the St Andrew’s University school of psychology and neuroscience is studying these differences between nations’ responses to lockdown
The Bishop Wardlaw Professor believes the differences between the UK and USA public reactions are rooted in ideological, material and political factors.
Reicher points out that the two countries’ attitudes towards the central state differ vastly. He said: “The US was born was born in a revolution against the central state – it was born out of suspicion of state power and it was organised very strongly to avoid too much centralised state power.
“Britain does not have an anti-state revolutionary tradition in the way that Europe has, in the way that countries born out of anti-colonial revolutions have either in the US or in other countries, say, in Africa.
“In Europe [including the UK], the state on the whole is seen as reasonably progressive and redistributive. In the States it’s seen as tyrannical.”
This, he says, is the reason Brits struggle to understand the American attitude toward guns – that guns somehow represent freedom against a domineering state – or towards the NHS: that free, nationalised, taxation-funded healthcare that makes choices about people’s treatment could be a bad thing.
“It doesn’t mean we are servile in general,” said Reicher. “In other ways and next to different authorities you could argue the British are more rebellious. For instance, in the ’70s and ’80s, Britain was known for its trade unionism and its strikes and the like, so a historical and generalised claim that one country is more servile than another just misses the particular relations, the particular forms of authority. What’s going on in the States is an anti-state rebellion – at least that’s how it’s presented.”
This UK compliance with state rhetoric appears to be confirmed so far in an ongoing Covid-19 social study being conducted by University College London. It is collecting data on the psychological and social experiences of adults in the UK and the US during the outbreak. The study, led by Dr Daisy Fancourt, has so far collated five weeks of data from the UK, and has just launched in the US.
Thus far, of the more than 75,000 people are currently participating in the study by completing weekly online surveys about their experiences and behaviours, the UK data appear to show people have retained high levels of confidence in the government guidelines, and a high degree of compliance with the rules.
Fancourt told HuffPost UK: “Our data suggest that people’s adherence to guidelines is still very high, but a few people may be starting to be slightly less strict in their behaviours. It’s vital that people continue to follow the advice closely.
“The slight increases we see in life satisfaction are promising, but average wellbeing levels are still substantially lower than usually reported, suggesting that people have not recovered from the shock caused by Covid-19 in early March.
“We are collecting data from the US now to compare experiences and it remains to be seen whether people are having different psychological experiences depending on factors such as the presence of stay-at-home orders and the trajectory of virus cases.”
The findings also support Reicher’s second theory as to the behavioural differences visible so far between the two nations.
He said: “In Britain, there is not a political leadership of any significance which is arguing against lockdown. If anything, the arguments are about ‘the government didn’t go far enough and fast enough in terms of lockdown’, whereas of course in the US Donald Trump leads and argues forcefully against the lockdown – and of course that means that those who support Trump are more likely to listen to it.”
“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” Trump demanded in a tweet-storm that saw him back the protests against his own government.
The US president is pushing to relax the US lockdown by May 1, a plan that hinges partly on more testing. He is currently facing a backlash over his extraordinary suggestion it would be “interesting to check” whether injecting disinfectants could help combat coronavirus. Under “no circumstance” should disinfectants be injected or consumed, the company which makes Dettol has warned.
Reicher continued: “There is such a strong polarisation that people just do not believe evidence that comes from those who are on the other side, to the extent that if doctors are on the other side to Trump, people do not believe it.
“Now, I don’t think that’s because people are irrational – it’s always been true that you assess information on the basis of who gives it to you and whether you can trust that they are giving you that information in your interests or in their interests.
“All that’s changed is the understanding of who is on our side and who isn’t.
“Trumpism, like many autocracies, is organised around the notion that Trump alone represents the nation and anybody that disagrees with him is not only anti-Trump but they’re anti-American. They’re anti- the group as a whole.”
Of course there will also be those joining such protests not out of a sense of an ideological commitment but because they are literally unable to feed themselves or their families without economic support.
That, says Reicher, is perhaps the most striking reason for comparatively strong levels of compliance in the UK and a lot of Europe: the availability of material support, both from the government and from the community coming together to fight the pandemic.
He said: “For all the factors that people have talked about – panic buying, people violating lockdown – the overwhelming headline is that of compliance, and part of the reason why that’s possible is that it is being seen by the public as ideologically being done for the good of the community.
“The lockdown isn’t being done for individuals – it’s being done specifically for the vulnerable in the community. It seems legitimate and it’s also seen as equitable.
“Part of the reason why is that the government has made some fairly large economic decisions to support those who have been forced into lockdown.”
Reicher personally believes the UK government should have delivered a universal minimum income for the period of the lockdown.
But he reckons measures taken to support the unemployed, sick pay, and providing wages to those who have been forced to stay at home have made a significant difference.
“At least enough action has been taken such that people are feeling: ‘Look, we are being enabled to do what is asked of us,’” he said.
“It is hard for a lot of people. It’s hard for the poor. But in the States, there hasn’t been that support, with the consequence that telling people to lock down and stay at home when they can’t put food on the table leads to a profound sense of inequity, a profound sense of injustice.
“It’s because of that sense of inequity that those people can be recruited to a cause, even if they don’t necessarily go along with the ideology.”
He added: “There have been riots in Italy and France which is what begins to happen when you are put in a position where you are told to lock down; you’re not given the material resources to make that possible; when you go out, you are sanctioned – you are harassed by the police – so you begin to get forms of conflict, forms of disorder, forms of rioting.
“That could happen in the UK if that sense of inequity arises, if things change such that new regulations are seen to be unequal, unfair, supporting some sections of the population over others, and if we don’t give the material support to people in order for them to go along with those things. So it’s not that the potential for disorder isn’t there, it is, but to date there is a strong sense both of necessity and of sufficient equity.”
Naturally, some of the government measures are being seen as unfair and the current balance is fragile, but for Reicher the factors to foment protests and riots – leading to a cycle of negative interactions with the authorities as they try to enforce laws that are seen as unjust – are not fully ripe.
Easing out of lockdown will require a delicate balancing act to maintain this, he stresses. As discussions about how to ease the lockdown take place, keeping the peace relies on people feeling the measures and mitigations are fair to all sections of society.
“There is and will continue to be some non-compliance, but it tends not to be that people don’t believe in it – it’s that it’s a practical issue.
“I’d argue strongly that the response shouldn’t be to presuppose people of ill will if they don’t comply and threaten them with sanctions. Rather it should be to presuppose they are of good will, which by and large they are, and to support them.
“You need a facilitative state which asks: ‘What are the issues? What are the problems with abiding by lockdown and how do we help people?’”
But what of the “Covidiots” and the virulent naming and shaming as both newspapers and individuals scramble to point out those people who are congregating in parks or not socially distancing?
Reicher says: “In the end what I think was going on there was not that people were stupid and not that they didn’t want to socially distance, but that they’d been told they could go out, that going out is good for you, but there isn’t the space. I mean, if there is limited space there are going to be bottlenecks. So what is the answer? Is the answer to close the parks? To threaten people with sanctions? Or is it to make more space available, for instance by making golf courses and private playing fields available.”
The stats should ask not how to stop people breaking the rules, but how to help people follow them, he said.
But for lockdown to work, people need to feel that the state is not taking away freedoms but rather giving them the means to collectively help tackle an illness.
Whether this sentiment continues to prevail in the UK as and when the decision to lift the lockdown is taken remains to be seen.