All plan B measures in England will be lifted next week, meaning an end to compulsory mask-wearing in shops, vaccine certificates for entering venues, and guidance to work from home. But are the public ready to embrace these freedoms just weeks after Covid cases in the UK hit a record high and with daily deaths higher now than when the measures were introduced?
Some are likely to feel more than ready to cast aside restrictions that have been financially and personally cumbersome, while others may fear things are moving too quickly. Regardless of the range of attitudes, changing the rules will shift behaviour.
“The research so far has shown that it has been rules that have been the dominant feature in driving behaviour,” said Prof Robert West, a behavioural scientist at University College London (UCL). “When you take the rules away, it won’t happen immediately, but what we’ve seen previously is a gradual erosion of protective behaviours even when attitudes are not changing that much.”
West points to a steady decline in the number of people adhering to advice to wear masks once it is not longer a requirement. “People still said they thought it was a good idea, but fewer and fewer people were actually doing it.”
West said that indications that the government would allow the legal requirement to self-isolate to lapse did not necessarily mean that people would jump the gun and change their behaviour in advance of this rule change.
“From data earlier in the pandemic we did not see substantial rule-breaking ahead of relaxations but in any event the adherence to self-isolation requirements has been low – one of the reasons why we have done so badly in the UK,” he said. “Thinking about other relaxations of legal restrictions, such as changes to cannabis laws in the US, I am not aware of major changes to behaviour ahead of the change.”
Once a certain threshold is crossed, the social norm can shift, hastening an overall change in behaviour. However, society does not move as a cohesive group, reflecting the very wide differences in risk faced by different groups and also shaped by personal experiences during the pandemic.
“You’ve got many groups of people, including about a quarter who are clinically vulnerable because of their age and/or health status,” said Prof Susan Michie, the director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL. “Many have stopped going out to restaurants and bars and are living very restricted lives. That’s not to do with the rules, it’s to do with the level of infection that has been allowed to surge and stay high over many months.”
By contrast, Michie said, young men have been the least likely to adhere to rules and are the group most likely to shift to less cautious behaviour once rules are lifted.
People also respond to messaging as well as the letter of the law. Simon Williams, a senior lecturer in people and organisation at Swansea University, said that on this front people may have been left feeling uncertain about what behaviours were now recommended.
“As the government mentions, caution is still important, since, despite the positive trend, rates are still high,” he said. “However … the problem with the general advice to ‘be cautious’ is that it is too vague and conflicts with the message that is sent by the removal of all policy measures and protections.
“Throughout the pandemic there has been a feeling amongst many that there have been ‘mixed messages’ – often a result of policies and messages not matching up.”
Prof Stephen Reicher, a behavioural scientist at the University of St Andrews, noted that behaviour depends not just on people’s eagerness to be out and about, but also on the extent to which choices are available. If working from home is no longer government guidance, it may no longer be an option for many employees, for instance. And when the requirement to self-isolate ends in March (or before then), along with test-and-trace support grants, some of those on low incomes who relied on these payments may not feel they have a choice.
“We concentrate a lot on the issue of motivation – will the public want to or not want to go out,” said Reicher. “But actually, when you say ‘it’s up to you’, it means it’s up to you if you’ve got the resources to do it; if not, bad luck.”