Behavioural legacies of ‘freedom’ days

By John Drury

July 19th last year (2021) was characterised as ‘freedom day’ by the UK government and media. On that date, there were three notable changes in policy in relation to the Covid pandemic: nightclubs were allowed to reopen, social distancing rules were dropped, and the wearing of face coverings was no longer required by law.

As with ‘freedom day’ 2020, changes in public behaviour began ahead of the day itself. The media fanfare ahead of the actual announcement operated as a strong signal that measures such as face coverings were less necessary due to a decline in the threat from the virus.

However, the psychology and behaviour were somewhat at odds. In a commentary published a few weeks after ‘freedom day’ 2021, the British Psychological Society COVID-19 Behavioural Science and Disease Prevention Taskforce observed that ‘most adults (92%) said they continued to wear face coverings, while the percentage of adults who said they ‘always’ or ‘often’ maintained physical distancing was 53% (down from 63% just before ‘freedom day’) in the same period. These data and other evidence therefore suggest that, for at least a large proportion of the UK public, there was still a desire to maintain protective behaviours’.

While there was therefore no large sudden drop in protective behaviours immediately after ‘freedom day’ 2021, the Office for National Statistics has charted a steady decline in key protective behaviours – use of face coverings, avoiding crowded places – in the year since then, as well as a very concerning decline in the rate of take-up of vaccinations.

Yet arguably it was the further abandonments of mitigation measures by the government this year that have had a bigger impact than ‘freedom day’ 2021, and certainly seem to be associated with the acceleration in the decline in protective behaviours. In January this year, the prime minister announced the dropping of (relatively limited) requirements to present Covid passes at certain venues and events and the rule to wear face coverings on public transport and in certain indoor locations, as well as the guidance to work remotely. (Indeed, the term ‘freedom day’ was used for January 2022, not just July 2020 and 2021). Then, in February, the legal requirement to self-isolate and the £500 isolation payment for people on low incomes who are required to self-isolate were both dropped. And free Covid testing stopped on 1 April this year.

Today, even as rates of Covid infection are sky-rocketing, only a minority are now adopting protective measures such as face coverings. In-person meetings and events are now the norm, and rates of self-isolation, already low, have dropped still further.

In order to explain these patterns of public behaviour, it’s helpful to look at the same factors that explained adherence in the first place.

First, there is perception of risk. There has been a step-change in the public’s perceptions of the risks associated with Covid in the past six months or so. This partly reflects a recognition that the vaccines have made the threat of serious illness and death less likely for the vast majority. But it is also a function of the way we think about illness – that in some way it’s now ‘ok’ or more acceptable or accepted to be ill with Covid. Of course, if you are very ill or unable to access a service because of illness in the workforce, then you can see that it isn’t actually sustainable to accept these levels of illness. This is where the government’s messaging comes in. They and their supporters have repeatedly told us that the pandemic is over. (Many were surprised then at yet another Omicron wave this summer.) In line with this, they have dismantled much of the machinery set up to help in the pandemic response (including the advisory groups and some of the surveillance). Like the government’s attempts almost to enforce pre-pandemic norms (such as coming into the office), these actions have further significantly impacted public perceptions of risk. In addition, perceptions of risk have also been altered in terms of scope: there has been an unfortunate reframing of risk to focus on ‘me’ the individual (mostly not going to die) rather than ‘us’ the community (which includes large variations in levels of vulnerability). These altered perceptions of risk have consequences for people’s willingness to take up the offers of vaccine, as well as for behaviours such as mask-wearing. It is no coincidence that the vaccine programme has stalled in the past six months, with a significant minority still not vaccinated.

Second, there are social norms. To see other people abandoning masks and embracing crowded places operates as a form of evidence that in-person interaction is safer now — particularly when the other people involved are our reference groups. The survey data suggests that most people see mitigation measures as important, but think that other people don’t feel the same way. These perceived norms drive behaviour more than own attitudes do.

Third, there is the role of support (or lack of it). Now, almost all support for protective behaviours has been dropped. The ending of financial support for self-isolation and the abolition of free testing for most people not only make it harder for many people to do these things, but also again send a very strong signal that risk is reduced.

There has been a struggle over the meaning of ‘living with the virus’. The prevailing definition, in which we put up with repeated and sometimes long-term illness, is in large part of function of so-called ‘freedom day’ 2021 and, more so, the other government announcements to drop mitigations, which communicated that the public could and should behave as though the virus doesn’t actually exist.

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