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Behavioural experts and government advisers have challenged the idea that tightening rules at Christmas would reduce compliance and fuel rule-breaking.
Provided the government explained the rationale for any change in the rules, and didn’t punish anyone who failed to comply, most people would adjust their Christmas plans, experts said – particularly if they were offered a sweetener, such as an additional bank holiday next summer, which they could plan towards.
Boris Johnson has so far ignored calls to tighten the restrictions on households mixing over Christmas, in spite of stark warnings from the scientific community that this could lead to a fresh rise in coronavirus cases. It is understood that there is concern that cancelling the current plans could lead to reduced compliance with restrictions during January and later months – but behavioural experts have questioned that reasoning.
“I think the evidence we’ve seen is that people are pretty good at complying with rules, as long as they know what they are,” said Nilu Ahmed, a behavioural psychologist at the University of Bristol.
“None of the decisions and plans that people have made are things that can’t be changed. It’s just about knowing what we can and can’t do.”
For weeks, ministers have promised to relax the rules over the festive period provided people complied with new restrictions, such as the introduction of tiers. Yet YouGov polling suggests this decision may have led to an increase in people deciding to travel to see family.
Before the announcement of a relaxation of the rules, 16% of Britons said they planned to take part in a gathering between different homes anyway, rising to 35% afterwards.
“In changing the rules, and giving people permission, you send a very clear message,” said Stephen Reicher, a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of the SPI-B behavioural science advisory committee to Sage.
Doing so again would clearly signal the severity of the situation the country is facing. Although there is a risk of this undermining people’s confidence in the government’s effectiveness, it could be perceived as them listening to changing evidence and responding accordingly, said Reicher.
“Provided they give a good rationale for changing the rules, I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be a problem,” he said.
This appears to be what happened at Eid, when Muslims in northern parts of England were urged to stay at home with only a few hours notice: “People had bought their gifts, they’d cooked masses of food for family and ended up having to do doorstep drop-offs instead,” said Ahmed. “People weren’t happy and they complained, but they complied because that message of safety was the most important one.”
Even so, it is unlikely that everyone would comply. There needs to be a certain amount of leeway, to avoid situations such as dying relatives being unable to spend their final Christmas with their families, or people who are psychologically suffering being left alone over the festive period. Clear messaging around the need to avoid household mixing, apart from in exceptional circumstances, would also be essential, Reicher said.
“One thing I do not want to see is punishments,” added John Drury, a social psychologist at the University of Sussex and a member of Independent Sage and SPI-B. “Across public health interventions, coercive approaches tend not to work. They damage the relationship of cooperation with the public that is needed.”
What might help is to accompany any changes with positive suggestions of how people might adapt their plans, Ahmed suggested: “The message should very much be about doing what’s safest for you and your family. So, rather than rushing out to the post office, maybe save those gifts until you can see your family. Or if you’ve ordered a turkey and it hasn’t arrived, could you change that order, or think about freezing or donating some of it in a safe way instead?”
Another strategy might be to provide an alternative date for family celebrations, such as declaring a public holiday on Midsummer Day: “It would send a very strong message which says: ‘Why not meet when it’s safe to do so,’ said Reicher. “It would also be seen as saying, ‘Look, we hate doing this and taking things away, so we want to give you something concrete to be able to plan towards, and give you hope’.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Experts question idea Christmas lockdown would fuel rule-breaking | World news