A Consistent Third of British Public Admits to Not Fully Following Coronavirus Rules

February 1, 2021
By The Redfield & Wilton Strategies Research Team
Coronavirus | Coronavirus Lockdown Measures | Coronavirus Restrictions | Coronavirus Vaccine | Health
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While several Government Ministers have been considering tougher measures to combat the rapid rise in coronavirus cases, Downing Street has insisted that their focus is on enforcing the current lockdown restrictions. Mandatory face masks outdoors, the abolition of support bubbles, and limits to exercise have all been floated as potential new restrictions. Yet the success of coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns is critically dependent on the public’s willingness to comply.

Polls conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies at several points during the present lockdown indicate that approximately a third (33% to 37%) of the British public admit to ‘mostly’ rather than ‘fully’ following the Government restrictions that are currently in place, indicating that a significant minority admit they are breaking rules to some extent.

Examining our most recent poll, younger people are less likely to be fully adhering to the restrictions: 49% say they have mostly adhered to restrictions, rather than fully. Even so, a significant minority of those 65 and over (29%) say they have also failed to stick to the rules fully despite being the age group most at risk from the virus.

General attitudes regarding the competency of the Government (or lack thereof) have had no clear correlation with self-reported compliance. Those that think the Government is competent or is taking the right measures are not significantly more likely to fully adhere to the restrictions than those who think otherwise––a likely consequence of the fact that those who think otherwise split into two groups: those that think the Government should be more restrictive and those that think the Government should be less restrictive.

However, about half (51%) of those who think that Government restrictions are more harmful than helpful admit that they have not fully stuck to the rules, compared to only 30% of those who think the restrictions are more helpful than harmful. Those who think it is likely that they would get caught if they broke the rules are only 9% more likely to say they fully (rather than mostly) obey the rules than those who think it is unlikely that they would get caught, suggesting that fines and other forms of punishment are not necessarily as compelling deterrents as persuading the public of the merits of the lockdown.

Our research finds that Londoners are more likely to say they have fully adhered to the rules than the overall national population, with three-quarters saying they have not broken any rules. Unlike the national public, there is little difference in compliance between age groups in London.

Meanwhile, about half of the overall British public consistently report having met with a friend or family member from outside their household in the past week––an activity which is mostly not permitted indoors (some can meet with others in their ‘support bubble’) and is permitted if meeting one other person outside. Young people are the most likely to report having met with others, which may include parents or relatives who live in another household but form part of their ‘support bubble.’

Only half (51% to 53%) of those who say they have met up with a friend or family member in the past week say they always stayed at a distance, while a further quarter (23% to 25%) say they maintain a distance most of the time, but not always. It is important to note that social distancing is not always possible and can be difficult even in legally permitted situations, such as while exercising. Under current restrictions, it is legal to meet with someone from outside your household or support bubble for exercise. However, a large portion of the public seem to admit that they do not always stay at a distance when they do so.

Indeed, a quarter (25% to 26%) say they have even come into physical contact on occasions where they saw a friend or family member who does not live in their household in the past week.

Over a third (38%) of 18-to-24-year-olds say they have come into physical contact on the occasions that they saw a friend or family member in the past week, a decrease from 51% the week prior. While meeting one person outside is legal, a significant portion of those that opt to do so are not complying with social distancing advice.

Our findings echo results from polling conducted in November and early December, during the second national lockdown, when similar portions of the British public said they were mostly following the rules.

Again, younger people were more likely to say they had mostly rather than fully followed the lockdown rules. These results are not limited to the national lockdowns, as an almost identical portion of the public said they were mostly (rather than fully) following the rules during the original three-tier system of local restrictions.

While compliance has remained relatively consistent since the three-tier system was first in place, fear of contracting coronavirus from going outside has increased. In the second lockdown, the public was evenly split when it came to being actively scared of contracting coronavirus or considering it a genuine possibility that they might contract it whenever they go outside. In light of the new Kent strain, the majority (53% to 57%) now say they are actively scared of contracting coronavirus when they go outside. There are, perhaps surprisingly, no significant differences between the age groups when it comes to fear of contracting the virus, despite the varying levels of compliance for each age group.

A plurality of the British public thinks it is unlikely they would be caught if they broke the coronavirus restrictions (44%), echoing results from earlier in the third lockdown (41%), and the second national lockdown (50%). The Government’s claim that the police are cracking down on rule breakers has not led to a significant increase in the portion of the public who think it is likely they will be caught.

Furthermore, the fact that a plurality thinks it is unlikely that they would be caught if they broke the rules while the majority say they fully comply with them once again suggests that criminal punishment may not be a significant factor in motivating individuals to comply. Instead, social pressure and a sense of responsibility is most likely what encourages the public to comply with rules.  

The coronavirus vaccine has been touted as the key to ending lockdowns—and with millions of Britons receiving the vaccination over the coming weeks, immunity passports have been suggested as a way of allowing people to bypass restrictions. However, the vast majority (78%) of the British public think that those who have already been vaccinated should still follow coronavirus restrictions.

Younger people are more likely to think that those who have been vaccinated should be free to not follow restrictions: 44% of 18-to-24-year-olds say that those who have been vaccinated should be exempt from the rules compared to just a tenth (10%) of those 65 and over, despite the fact that older people will probably receive the vaccine quicker than younger age groups. Indeed, the jury is still out on whether those who have been vaccinated can still carry the virus and whether it takes time for someone to develop the necessary antibodies after vaccination.

Overall, while fear of contracting the virus has increased, a significant minority of the public consistently admit to not fully following the rules during the initial tier system, the second lockdown, and the current lockdown. Younger people are less likely to have fully adhered to the rules but are just as likely to think they will get the virus if they go outside as older age groups. Only a small minority of the public think it is likely they would be caught if they broke the rules, suggesting that fear of punishment is not the driving factor for compliance, but rather social pressure, a sense of responsibility, and fear of contracting the virus.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

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