Public may take Covid less seriously without restrictions, study says

Research led by Cardiff University found people have judged pandemic risks by the severity of government restrictions

People in the street near a sign offering public health advice during the coronavirus pandemic
People in the street near a sign offering public health advice during the coronavirus pandemic

People are likely to take the dangers of coronavirus less seriously after restrictions are finally lifted, according to a new study.

Psychologists believe lockdowns during the pandemic successfully convinced the public of the severity of the Covid-19 threat if their government was prepared to impose such severe measures.

The findings could mean that scrapping restrictions leads to people ignoring any remaining public health guidance which could include things like wearing face masks in crowded places or washing hands.

Boris Johnson has said England’s Covid restrictions are likely to be torn up on July 19 on what has been dubbed the country’s “freedom day”, while all but a handful of rules will be ditched in Scotland after August 9.

Restrictions in Northern Ireland are expected to be reviewed on July 9, while an announcement on rules in Wales is expected on July 14.

The study, based on two surveys during 2020 and published on Wednesday in the Royal Society Open Science journal, found members of the public in the UK judged the threat of Covid “via the magnitude of the policy response” from government.

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’.

“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.”

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist from the University of Bath, said the findings showed how bold actions could be used by governments to influence public perceptions of issues.

“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 the climate emergency, or blocking airport expansions.

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