Following the controversy surrounding Dominic Cummings driving to Durham and arguably breaking the lockdown rules he helped devise, many expected that his behaviour could drive the UK public to comply with the lockdown measures less rigorously. However, recent polling by Redfield & Wilton Strategies suggests the opposite became true: in addition to the 56% who did not change their behaviour on the basis of the Cummings controversy, 21% of the UK public say they became more likely to follow the social distancing rules in the aftermath of the Cummings controversy. Conversely, a similar proportion (19%) said they became less likely to follow the rules as a result of Cummings’ drive to Durham.
When asked more generally whether intense public scrutiny of possible violations of social distancing measures has made them more likely to follow such measures, 31% agreed and 18% disagreed, whereas the plurality (48%) neither agreed nor disagreed. These results suggest that the vast majority of the public has become no less and, in many cases, even more likely to follow social distancing rules as a result of public scrutiny of potential violations. This conclusion runs counter to the narrative advanced by some that the Cummings episode will encourage people to break social distancing rules based on his example; in fact, it appears that the scrutiny of his actions may have had the reverse effect for some.
Overall, the great majority of the UK public has adhered to the lockdown rules strictly, and arguably it was public pressure which initially drove the Government to institute a lockdown. Three polls conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategy over the past month found that more than 95% respondents at various points in the month claimed to have fully or mostly adhered to the social distancing measures introduced by the Government.
Across the three polls, the percentage of respondents who claimed to have fully adhered to the social distancing rules hovered between 70-73%, whereas the percentage who claimed to have mostly adhered to the rules was an additional 23-35%.
However, when asked for their impression of the extent to which the rest of the UK population has observed the rules, only 10% thinks the public has fully observed the rules, whereas 59% thinks the public has mostly observed the rules, and 27% thinks the public has only somewhat observed the rules.
This discrepancy between 70-73% of the public claiming to have fully followed the rules yet 27% thinking that the UK public as a whole has only somewhat adhered to them might be a result of intense media treatment of cases of alleged rule-breaking. This would include not only Cummings’ drive to Durham, but also media outlets publishing images of crowded parks or beaches accompanied by captions designed to outrage the readership.
Another reason for this discrepancy between the two questions could simply be that one question asks about an individual (the respondent) and the other question asks about a group (the British public). As such, a respondent may say that a group is ‘mostly’ following the rules, even as they know that the vast majority are fully following the rules, in order to account for the few rule breakers.
Among those respondents who said they have not fully adhered to the rules (i.e. those who have mostly, somewhat, or scarcely adhered to them), their reasons they gave for not fully adhering to them were very similar in the two polls that asked this question—and they were similar to Cummings’ reasons. Respondents identified the most common reasons for not being able to follow the lockdown rules fully as being a difficulty avoiding interactions with family who live in a different household (38%) and avoiding interactions with friends who live in a different household (25-28%).
Thus, it appears that even members of the public who have not followed the lockdown rigorously have done so for important reasons such as having to interact with family or friends, as opposed to behaviour such as going to the beach or hosting secret parties, which the media headlines often emphasise.
As the Government starts to relax social distancing rules—including allowing people to exercise more than once a day, or to meet outdoors with family and friends from different households—it might be the case that adherence to the remaining social distancing rules will improve, since the rules people found most difficult to follow will be eased. Ultimately, the great majority of the UK public has demonstrated a strong commitment to adhering to the lockdown rules, and publicised instances of alleged rule-breaking such as Cummings’ drive to Durham only seem to have driven the public to follow the rules more keenly.