As the people of Sheffield prepared to join Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region in the premier league of Covid-19 restrictions – tier 3 – there were widely differing views on whether the tough new rules about to be imposed from London were welcome, or would even work. On the streets and in the city’s pubs last Thursday evening there was, however, one commonly held opinion – compliance would be some way short of total.
“During the first part of lockdown I abided by the rules very strictly,” said Phillip, a 47-year-old gas engineer, as he waited for a pork wrap outside the Greedy Greek Deli. “We still are doing that, but it’s wearing thin. I think the economy and life still has to go on. But then it’s a balancing act with the NHS and the beds.”
Back in March when Boris Johnson shut down most of the country including schools, most people understood and obeyed.
“Proper lockdown was easy,” said Jason, 29, sitting on a wall on Sharrow Vale Road eating a butty. “You knew what you could and couldn’t do and you just did that.” Like many others he seemed less sure this time.
Simon, 36, who works in hospitality and travels a lot with his work, said his attitudes had been influenced by seeing others breaking the rules and ignoring guidance, meeting people outside their households in places where doing so was banned. If they broke the rules, why shouldn’t he?
He said: “We’re sat next to a couple in the pub whose opening gambit was ‘so, how’s things?’ They’ve clearly not seen each other for a while. When you look around and see other people who probably don’t even live in the same postcode, you kind of go: ‘fuck the rules.’”
Yesterday some 1.2 million people in South Yorkshire joined around 2.8 million in Greater Manchester and 3.1 million in Lancashire and the Liverpool city region in tier 3. In these areas, social mixing is banned indoors and in private gardens while pubs and bars have to close unless they serve substantial meals. Stoke-on-Trent, Slough and Coventry have also joined London in tier 2.
Scotland is to enter a new five-tier system of restrictions from 2 November; Northern Ireland has adopted much tougher restrictions; and a 17-day “fire break” is under way in Wales meaning most non-essential businesses are closed, with people only able to leave home for limited reasons. Supermarkets removed non-essential items from sale – including clothing, kitchen electricals and crockery – using barriers and plastic sheets to cover products.
But seven months into the pandemic the views of people in places such as Sheffield raise a very serious question – aside from the intense scientific debates – about whether, whatever the new rules are here and there, the country has still got the stomach for the fight?
Professor Susan Michie, director of the centre for behaviour change at University College London and a participant in the government’s scientific committee Sage, rejects the idea that “pandemic fatigue” has set in. But she believes there is a real compliance problem that is of the government’s own making.
“There is no evidence to suggest people are getting tired. People are getting angry, frustrated and resentful – they’re not getting tired,” she told the Observer. “The collective solidarity of ‘we’re all in this together’ is a really important part of people following challenging restrictions, [but] adherence is being undermined by many kinds of perceived unfairness.”
Michie believes the tolerance of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham in the spring, the perceived fuelling of a north-south divide which culminated in the rows over financial support involving Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, and “the ideology of privatisation, giving huge amounts of money seemingly to their contacts” for the test, trace and isolate programme have savaged public confidence and, in turn, compliance.
She added that communities did not feel involved or consulted: “There isn’t a strategy that makes sense to an overwhelming majority of people. The restrictions haven’t worked, communities have not been engaged with and instead they have been blamed. The government blames health professionals for using too much PPE, it blames people for having tests, it blames young people – it does not celebrate good practice or make people feel good about themselves or pride in what they’ve achieved.”
Michie was backed by social psychologist Professor Stephen Reicher, at the University of St Andrews, and Molly Byrne, director of the Health Behaviour Change Research Group and a public health adviser to the Irish government.
Both said Westminster’s approach of imposing fines and encouraging neighbours to snitch on one another would backfire.
“It’s a bad road to go down,” said Byrne. “The data shows that the vast majority of people want to adhere to the measures in their areas and it’s really important to boost those levels of solidarity and trust.”
On Friday, a major report by the London School of Economics revealed that government policies had exacerbated the problem of non-compliance. Researchers advised that communities be put at the centre of pandemic policy if the rules were expected to be followed.
Reicher said: “If people see restrictions which don’t seem to have achieved very much being imposed again, they will be sceptical. The British public have shown remarkable resilience and would get behind a national lockdown. The polling has consistently shown that by a ratio of three to one, people want the government to do more rather than less and do it sooner rather than later.”
When Sage first recommended a short national circuit breaker or full lockdown on 21 September, as opposed to regional interventions, infection rates in England stood at 4,500 a day. A month on, the figure is four times that.
The latest Opinium poll for the Observer this weekend suggests lack of faith in the government’s handling of the pandemic is indeed growing, hand in hand with public confusion and increasing lack of compliance.
Approval of the government’s response to Covid is now at a record low of 29%, with 50% disapproving. Some 50% of people say the new three-tier system in England is clear but 44% say it is not, while 34% say they aren’t confident that they know what the rules are in their own area. And among young people aged 18 to 34 the proportion admitting to flouting the rules has risen in two weeks from 10% to 17%. Among those aged 35 to 44 it has risen from 10% to 18%.
A sense that the spirit of national solidarity is crumbling is fuelled by parts of the media who believe the restrictions have gone way too far. Yesterday the Daily Mail splashed with “It’s Covid Hysteria”, adding a list of what it regarded as examples of interventionist madness saying “supermarkets ban sock sales, CCTV spies on social distancing, road checks on Welsh border, teacher threatens playdate pupils with police”.
But as the Mail rails against diktats, many scientists take the opposite line – that the restrictions on our lives have gone nowhere near far enough. “At the end of March we went into a very severe lockdown. Students were not at university, children were not at school, and pubs and restaurants were all closed and even then we only managed to bring the virus reproduction value R down to just below one,” said mathematician Michael Tildesley, at Warwick University.
In comparison, tier 3, the most severe set of new restrictions that can be imposed in England, still allows students to attend university, children to be at school and pubs and cafes to remain open to a limited extent. “My worry is that tier 3 won’t bring us close enough to the crucial ‘R equals one’ level that has to be reached to ensure that case numbers start to come down,” he added.
“We could easily get a situation where cities like Manchester or Liverpool will never be able to come out of tier 3 because they cannot get ‘R below 1’. That is my real worry. All we are going to see is tighter and tighter restrictions being imposed and that will have long-term economic consequences and pose threats to people’s mental health.”
Like other experts he backs a draconian national circuit breaker in which really severe lockdown measures are imposed for a fixed period. “People would know that it was only a fairly short period and would tolerate it,” said Tildesley. “Certainly, if we don’t do something now, we will soon be in real trouble.”
In Westminster, any semblance of political consensus has disappeared, replaced by open division. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has argued for the same kind of circuit breaker over half-term, while accusing Johnson of having “lost control” of the virus.
Worries that the government has not been tough enough were expressed also by Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London. He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Saturday that the NHS would not be able to cope with the current rate of growth in numbers of Covid cases for much longer. New restrictions on households mixing should have a “significant effect”, he said, but these might not be enough and further action might be needed.
“There is a limit to what we can do in terms of reducing contacts, short of starting to target, for instance, the older years in schools and sixth-form colleges where we know older teenagers are able to transmit as adults. Of course, nobody wants to start moving to virtual education and closing schools even partially. The challenge may be that we are not able to get on top of the transmission otherwise.”
The government’s failure to provide consistent warnings of the disease’s danger to the public was another major factor in the current rise in numbers of cases, added Bharat Pankhania, of Exeter University Medical School.
“They launched their ‘eat out to help out’ to encourage people to go to restaurants without giving any additional advice about the need to continue to be vigilant – and that was a real mistake,” he said. “We need to be giving much better advice to people on how deal with this virus.”
Pankhania also urged that the government’s test-and-trace system be moved into local areas. “We need a much slicker operation and that sort of thing can be done much better at a local level. We are going to need our trace-and-track services for a long time, I suspect.”
Michie adds that confusion is inevitable among the public as the arguments rage. “People are understandably confused. Over time they become disengaged and think: ‘you know what, I’ll try and extract my own principles and do my own risk assessment and management.’”
Back in Sheffield some were indeed making their own assessments, bending the rules where they felt they could. A young resident called Rebecca said she had recently “intimately kissed” on a date, insisting it was not a moment of complete abandon but a measured decision. She said: “I judged it on if, you know [I believed] the other person was taking precautions”, rather than on what the strict letter of the latest government rules told her she was allowed to do.