Lifting restrictions will make public take Covid threat less seriously, study suggests

7 July 2021, 07:13

Almost all lockdown rules are set to be lifted in England on 19 July.
Almost all lockdown rules are set to be lifted in England on 19 July. Picture: PA

By Joe Cook

The British public is likely to take the risk of Covid less seriously once restrictions are finally lifted, a new study suggests.

Psychologists found the severity of the government's response to Covid-19 is directly related to how seriously people take the threat of the virus.

The findings could mean the scrapping of almost all restrictions in England on 19 July will lead many to ignore any remaining health guidance, such as wearing face masks in crowded places or washing hands.

This could have serious public health consequences, with current estimates suggesting rising cases will mean millions are infected with the virus this summer.

Lead author Dr Colin Foad, from Cardiff University, said: "Surprisingly, we found that people judge the severity of the Covid-19 threat based on the fact the government imposed a lockdown - in other words, they thought 'it must be bad if government's taking such drastic measures'.

Read more: Close contact self-isolation scrapped for the fully vaccinated - but not until August

Read more: Health Secretary: I'll keep wearing a mask, it's a responsible thing to do

Sadiq Khan says mask-wearing 'the most unselfish act you can do'

"We also found that the more they judged the risk in this way, the more they supported lockdown.

"This suggests that if and when 'freedom day' comes and restrictions are lifted, people may downplay the threat of Covid."

Dr Foad said the research, which was also supported by the University of Bath and the University of Essex, found people's support for restrictions was not based on the sense of threat to themselves or their families, but to "the country as a whole".

"In order to try and keep public support for lockdowns high, various strategies have been tried by the government, including reminding people that they and their loved ones are at risk from Covid-19," he said.

"However, we find that most people's personal sense of threat does not relate to their support for restrictions."

Explained: When will nightclubs reopen in the UK and what safety measures will be in place?

Read more: Heathrow pilots fast-track scheme for fully-vaccinated travellers

Case numbers could rise far higher than 50k when we unlock

The study is based on two surveys during 2020 and was published in the peer-reviewed Royal Society Open Science journal on Wednesday.

Beyond Covid, Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist from the University of Bath, said the findings could also be used to tackle other crises.

"This has important implications for how we deal with other risks, like climate change - the public will be more likely to believe it's a serious problem if governments implement bold policies to tackle it," she said.

Professor Whitmarsh said bold actions might include stopping all new road projects, like the Welsh government's recent suspension of road construction to help tackle climate change, or blocking airport expansions.