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Over the past few days, coronavirus infections have spiked, nearly doubling to about 3,000 cases on Sunday and Monday, and 2,500 cases on Tuesday. There are signs that the number of deaths is also starting to rise, with 32 reported Covid-19 fatalities on Tuesday.
These figures are clearly very worrying. This was supposed to be the period when we drove the pandemic down so it would be in good shape for the winter. Instead, we seem to be losing control. So why is it happening? And what can we do about it?
The government’s immediate response was to point the finger at young people as the culprits. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, toured the news studios to argue that they were the ones who, in breaking the rules, risked creating a second wave – and he warned: “Don’t kill your gran by catching coronavirus and then passing it on.”
This narrative, that public misbehaviour is the problem and that house parties are at the core of it, was then translated into policy. Late on Tuesday, the prime minister announced that the number of people who would be allowed to gather indoors or outdoors in England would be reduced from 30 to six, starting on 14 September.
At one level, much of this seems entirely reasonable. We clearly have to do something to address the spread of infection and it is quite right to start by seeking to limit our physical contacts with others. But there is a tension between telling people not to gather at home and threatening them with redundancy if they don’t gather at work; or instructing them not to drink and carouse, and insisting that it is their “patriotic duty” to go out to the pub. Single and seemingly inconsistent ad hoc measures are not a substitute for a coherent overall strategy to limit exposure and drive infections down.
Equally, Hancock is quite right that young people have a responsibility to act cautiously in order to avoid spreading infection. It is also undeniably true that the spike in infections is particularly acute among younger people. Thus, in the period from 17 to 30 August there were 3,995 new coronavirus cases among those aged 20-29 compared with just 1,560 among all those aged over 60. However, to pick out young people and suggest that infections are rising due to their bad behaviour is quite another thing. It is inaccurate, unfair and counter-productive. It won’t help address the pandemic. As we shall see, it will only make things worse.
First, the notion that young people as a group are non-compliant is simply wrong. It may be that slightly more are non-adherent than in other age groups, but right from the start of lockdown the great majority have observed Covid regulations. Just after Hancock’s “don’t kill your gran” comments, a YouGov poll came out showing that 70% of 18- to 24-year-olds wanted the pandemic to be taken more seriously. The image of young people as generally flouting restrictions, partying and drinking the night away is a pernicious stereotype. It may be that some spectacular violations are plastered all over the media, but they are unrepresentative of the wider reality.
Second, given that young people overall observed restrictions for the sake of their families and their community – even when they personally were at least risk – it is then particularly galling to be told “you irresponsible lot are the problem”. If the government considers young people a stigmatised “outgroup”, it will only make young people see the government in turn as an outgroup, with whom they don’t identify, and hence destroy any possibility ministers might have of influencing behaviour. Still worse, as I have argued previously, in claiming that some groups are flouting the rules, one sets up a norm that increases rule-breaking: “if everybody else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?” In these ways, Hancock’s messaging isn’t just wrong, it also helps to create the very problems he is warning against.
Third, the problems of Hancock’s messaging are not limited to their effects on young people but also have an effect on everyone else. If you moralise adherence and non-adherence by suggesting that the problem lies with young people, you create many problems. One of these is that it allows people to think that messages about adherence have nothing to do with them. They aren’t like those awful young ravers. They aren’t bad. They are simply interpreting the rules, bending them a little perhaps. They aren’t having a house party but just having a couple more people round. And so, adherence is undermined across the board.
Fourth, and perhaps most seriously, by creating a blame culture, in which the surge of infections is attributed to the wilful misbehaviour of particular groups, the spotlight is removed from the systemic causes of the infection. Even if people want to stay apart, they cannot do so as long as they live, work and play in environments that force them together. Even if people want to do the right things, they cannot if denied the support necessary to make those things possible.
Perhaps the most shocking figures from last week concerned the number of people who self-isolated when asked to do so – a mere 25%. Even if all other elements of test and trace were working well (which they patently are not) this alone would render the whole system pointless. And how can you expect people to self-isolate if you don’t ensure that they have the resources and the job security to do so? Not surprisingly the evidence from various countries shows that compensation greatly increases self-isolation, especially for the poorest people.
And this brings us to the nub of the matter. We will only get through this pandemic as a partnership. The government, employers and public all have a responsibility to play their part. And the best way any one party can influence the others is not by lecturing them but by playing their own part. The best way the government can affect behaviour is by supporting people to do the right thing. The worst thing they can do is blame some among us when things are going wrong.
• Stephen Reicher is a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, an adviser to the UK and Scottish governments on coronavirus and professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews
Source: The Guardian
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