In incredibly unsurprising news, the combination of the easing of lockdown rules and a heatwave at the end of March led many people in England to choose to go to the park. This might not seem newsworthy, but clearly some would disagree. It was of great excitement to both many newspapers and to the government. The British public were subjected not only to endless tenuous puns on the topic of park overcrowding but also to ministerial pleas not to ‘blow it now’.
The science seems to suggest that this concern is overblown. Earlier this year, Professor Mark Woolhouse told a parliamentary committee that there was no evidence of a Covid outbreak linked to a crowded beach anywhere in the world. The data overwhelmingly indicates that there is minimal risk of Covid transmission outdoors, which is why outdoor gatherings are permitted earlier in the government’s roadmap and are less concerning to scientists from a Covid transmission perspective.
Despite what the recent pictures in the papers would have you believe, data also consistently shows that throughout the pandemic the British population have been overwhelmingly compliant with government measures. Opinion polls have shown sustained support for lockdowns and in fact often indicated that the public want the government to have gone further than they actually have done. Mobility data and people’s behavioural patterns have backed this up. Recall, for instance, last summer that the predictions of general chaos following the reopening of pubs largely did not come to pass; overall, the public are more sensible than the government seems to give credit for.
The government does not plan to remove all controls on social contact until June 21st at the earliest, so until then they are dependent on public compliance with guidelines and laws, even as vaccinations rapidly protect the population and reduce the threat of the disease. Behavioural scientists argue that the way to achieve this is through fostering a community spirit and highlighting the benefits of compliance, rather than constantly publicising the condemnation of breaches.
Despite this, there has often been haste to chide the public, in particular younger generations. From Mr Hancock’s exhortation not to ‘kill granny’ to members of the House of Lords giving their views on students’ sex lives, government officials have always appeared eager to condemn the young.
The media regularly get involved too – carefully selected pictures of beaches and protests and reporting on raves seem to imply constant widespread flouting of the guidelines. It was unsurprising that coverage of the reopening of pubs on Monday is actually less condemnatory than that of gatherings in parks. Newspapers celebrated Britain’s ‘grand reopening’ instead of criticising revellers for daring to have a good time. It is now not unreasonable to question whether this springs from those in the pub not being as exclusively of the younger generation (despite the increased Covid transmission risk from proximity to strangers in a beer garden over that of parks). . .
These photos purposefully taken to indicate maximal breaching of social distancing and hand-wringing government ministers and advisers might seem merely annoying, but there is evidence that this attitude to pandemic communication is actually harmful.
By blaming the public for rises in cases and accusing people of carelessness, the government largely shifts the blame for pandemic failings from the state to the people. By now, the litany of the government’s failings is well known, and overall the UK has been more let down by the government’s lack of a coherent pandemic strategy than by the behaviour of the public.
Young people in particular are deeply disillusioned with the government’s handling of the pandemic. A government which seems to largely only remember university students exist when it needs convenient scapegoats for policy failings, does not inspire trust. Fortunately, compliance with pandemic measures does not stem from trust in leaders but in an understanding among the vast majority of a need to protect the wider community. But a reductive narrative of focusing only on the rule-breakers will only serve to undermine this.
Fixating on what people do in the park, where there is minimal risk of transmission, therefore risks the success of the overall strategy. If people are bombarded with images of supposed social distancing breaches; and the rare occasions of egregious breaches, e.g. raves, are constantly reported on, public perception of general compliance could be distorted. If people come to believe that everyone else ignores the rules because that is what is implied in the public discourse, they are then more likely to do so themselves.
Professor Stephen Reicher, a behavioural scientist at the University of St. Andrews, has highlighted the importance of the community in encouraging compliance to Covid measures. He argues that people’s reasons for complying are generally not selfish and that people who feel more loyal to their communities are more likely to make sacrifices for the greater good. Creating divisions through constant criticism is arguably not the way to foster this loyalty.
Therefore, the government and the media obsessing over trips to parks is unhelpful and unnecessary. Even in a pandemic, people are allowed to have fun in ways that are safe and criticising families for simply enjoying the weather achieves nothing. Science suggests that people gathering outdoors is highly unlikely to derail the government’s roadmap. Regardless of what the Daily Mail would have you believe, most people have been and continue to be compliant with the baseline measures necessary to reduce the spread of the virus.
The greatest risk is not from people innocently going to the parks, but that the media and officials lead the public to believe that lockdown laws are being so widely ignored that they do actually choose to disobey them in more damaging ways. The government would do better to be more concerned about littering in parks than largely legal outdoor socialising; the litter is actually a problem.
Image Credit: Wikipedia