The way Boris Johnson has eased lockdown sends all the wrong messages | Stephen Reicher

At the last daily press conference on Covid-19, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, pleaded with the public: “If people don’t take mitigation seriously, if people hear a distorted version of what’s been said – that says ‘this is all fine now, it’s gone away’ – and start behaving in ways that they normally would have before this virus happened, yes we will get an uptick for sure. So it is absolutely critical that people stick to the guidance that has been given.”

It was a candid admission that behavioural issues are central to what happens next, and that the good sense of the population is all that stands between us and disaster. After all, the virus hasn’t gone away, infection levels are roughly where they were shortly before lockdown, and if we return to business as usual we will rapidly waste all the sacrifices of the last three months.

It was also a deeply ironic moment, given that this administration has systematically underestimated the resilience of the British public, invoked their lack of staying power to delay lockdown, and was then surprised at the extent to which people obeyed restrictions despite considerable hardship for many. In effect, the government now has to rely on those they dismissed in order to save their skin.

But the problem is that the easing of lockdown measures announced by the government on Tuesday, which included a reduction of the 2-metre rule, endanger adherence to the remaining restrictions. People may have the willpower to endure hard times when they are convinced that it is necessary. But the evidence from past pandemics shows that they won’t abide by restrictive rules if they think that the danger has gone away. And while Whitty might argue that this is a distorted version of the government’s position, the problem is that actions can speak louder than words.

Whatever the prime minister might say, his policies lead to banner headlines such as Freedom Pass and Independence Day. But we don’t even need to read the papers. Every time we pass an open bar, it will scream to us that the danger is all but gone and we are “back to normal”. After all, who in their right mind would reopen the pubs and abandon distancing in the midst of a deadly pandemic?

But perhaps that is overstating things a little. After all, the government isn’t abandoning all distancing measures. It is saying 1 metre is acceptable when 2 metres is impossible, as long as other measures are applied. True. However, research in the field of proxemics – the study of space and social interaction – shows that, in the UK, 1 metre is roughly the distance we ordinarily maintain with others. So reducing it to 1 metre is akin to removing any restrictions from distancing, and hence functions as another signal of back to normal.

Moreover, even if 1 metre is the distance you start out at from someone, human bodies are not static. We draw in to those whom we see as alike, and to those we like. One metre quickly becomes half a metre. Limbs move. People touch. And, even before we start factoring in the use of alcohol, all semblance of restriction flies out of the window.

As stressed in a paper by the new behavioural advisory group to Independent Sage, the 2 metre to 1 metre reduction and the other changes announced for 4 July won’t only lead to an increased physical transmission of infection at a time when we are far from being out of the woods. They also undermine the psychological resolve we need to deal with the pandemic.

But although we counselled against a change, the change has been made. So what should happen now? The first thing is to abandon the bombast and the unbalanced optimism of “sending the virus packing in 12 weeks” and to be realistic about the situation we are in. It is a situation of considerable fragility and danger. We may have exchanged the blunt instrument of lockdown for the more targeted strategy of test, trace and isolate (rather prematurely perhaps when the testing system is far from fully functional) but that isn’t an “easing” or a “relaxation”. Rather it is a contract that, in return for lifting some restrictions, requires greater adherence in other ways.

Second, we need a massive effort to ramp up the testing system and drive down rates of infection. This is not just about logistics: it is also about understanding the barriers to adherence at every level, from acknowledging your symptoms early, getting tested and revealing all your contacts, to fully self-isolating if contacted. And to achieve that, we need to involve all sections of the community in developing the system and to deliver it through local systems they know and trust.

Third, we need to provide the material support to those we are asking to self-isolate at a time when everyone else is going out. This goes way beyond a vague promise that no one should be disadvantaged. It means bold and imaginative schemes involving all sections of society – government, business and local communities – to provide positive incentives to those who isolate themselves for the good of society.

In sum, it isn’t enough to express a fond hope that people will stick to guidance. It is now more necessary than ever to apply our understandings of human behaviour in order to provide the motivation, the information and practical resources for people to do the right thing. Then, despite government policies, the public may (not for the first time) come to the rescue of our country’s response to Covid-19.

• Stephen Reicher is a psychology professor and member of SPI-B, the Sage subcommittee advising the government on behavioural issues


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