Monday, 18 July 2022

Behavioural legacies of ‘freedom’ days


July 19th last year (2021) was characterised as ‘freedom day’ by the UK government and media. On that date, there were three notable changes in policy in relation to the Covid pandemic: nightclubs were allowed to reopen, social distancing rules were dropped, and the wearing of face coverings was no longer required by law.

As with freedom day 2020, changes in public behaviour began ahead of the day itself. The media fanfare ahead of the actual announcement operated as a strong signal that measures such as face coverings were less necessary due to a decline in the threat from the virus.

However, the psychology and behaviour were somewhat at odds. In a commentary published a few weeks after ‘freedom day’ 2021, the British Psychological Society COVID-19 Behavioural Science and Disease Prevention Taskforce observed that ‘most adults (92%) said they continued to wear face coverings, while the percentage of adults who said they ‘always’ or ‘often’ maintained physical distancing was 53% (down from 63% just before ‘freedom day’) in the same period. These data and other evidence therefore suggest that, for at least a large proportion of the UK public, there was still a desire to maintain protective behaviours’.

While there was therefore no large sudden drop in protective behaviours immediately after ‘freedom day’ 2021, the Office for National Statistics has charted a steady decline in key protective behaviours – use of face coverings, avoiding crowded places – in the year since then, as well as a very concerning decline in the rate of take-up of vaccinations.

Yet arguably it was the further abandonments of mitigation measures by the government this year that have had a bigger impact than ‘freedom day’ 2021, and certainly seem to be associated with the acceleration in the decline in protective behaviours. In January this year, the prime minister announced the dropping of (relatively limited) requirements to present Covid passes at certain venues and events and the rule to wear face coverings on public transport and in certain indoor locations, as well as the guidance to work remotely. (Indeed, the term ‘freedom day’ was used for January 2022, not just July 2020 and 2021). Then, in February, the legal requirement to self-isolate and the £500 isolation payment for people on low incomes who are required to self-isolate were both dropped. And free Covid testing stopped on 1 April this year.

Today, even as rates of Covid infection are sky-rocketing, only a minority are now adopting protective measures such as face coverings. In-person meetings and events are now the norm, and rates of self-isolation, already low, have dropped still further.

In order to explain these patterns of public behaviour, it’s helpful to look at the same factors that explained adherence in the first place.

First, there is perception of risk. There has been a step-change in the public’s perceptions of the risks associated with Covid in the past six months or so. This partly reflects a recognition that the vaccines have made the threat of serious illness and death less likely for the vast majority. But it is also a function of the way we think about illness – that in some way it’s now ‘ok’ or more acceptable or accepted to be ill with Covid. Of course, if you are very ill or unable to access a service because of illness in the workforce, then you can see that it isn’t actually sustainable to accept these levels of illness. This is where the government’s messaging comes in. They and their supporters have repeatedly told us that the pandemic is over. (Many were surprised then at yet another Omicron wave this summer.) In line with this, they have dismantled much of the machinery set up to help in the pandemic response (including the advisory groups and some of the surveillance). Like the government’s attempts almost to enforce pre-pandemic norms (such as coming into the office), these actions have further significantly impacted public perceptions of risk. In addition, perceptions of risk have also been altered in terms of scope: there has been an unfortunate reframing of risk to focus on ‘me’ the individual (mostly not going to die) rather than ‘us’ the community (which includes large variations in levels of vulnerability). These altered perceptions of risk have consequences for people’s willingness to take up the offers of vaccine, as well as for behaviours such as mask-wearing. It is no coincidence that the vaccine programme has stalled in the past six months, with a significant minority still not vaccinated.

Second, there are social norms. To see other people abandoning masks and embracing crowded places operates as a form of evidence that in-person interaction is safer now -- particularly when the other people involved are our reference groups. The survey data suggests that most people see mitigation measures as important, but think that other people don’t feel the same way. These perceived norms drive behaviour more than own attitudes do.

Third, there is the role of support (or lack of it). Now, almost all support for protective behaviours has been dropped. The ending of financial support for self-isolation and the abolition of free testing for most people not only make it harder for many people to do these things, but also again send a very strong signal that risk is reduced.

There has been a struggle over the meaning of ‘living with the virus’. The prevailing definition, in which we put up with repeated and sometimes long-term illness, is in large part of function of so-called ‘freedom day’ 2021 and, more so, the other government announcements to drop mitigations, which communicated that the public could and should behave as though the virus doesn’t actually exist.

Monday, 4 July 2022

Survivors’ experiences of informal social support in coping and recovering after the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing

Survivors’ experiences of informal social support in coping and recovering after the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing


Much of the psychosocial care people receive after major incidents and disasters is informal and is provided by families, friends, peer groups and wider social networks. Terrorist attacks have increased in recent years. Therefore, there is a need to better understand and facilitate the informal social support given to survivors.


We addressed three questions. First, what is the nature of any informal support-seeking and provision for people who experienced the 2017 Manchester Arena terrorist attack? Second, who provided support, and what makes it helpful? Third, to what extent do support groups based on shared experience of the attack operate as springboards to recovery?


Semi-structured interviews were carried out with a purposive sample of 18 physically non-injured survivors of the Manchester Arena bombing, registered at the NHS Manchester Resilience Hub. Interview transcripts were thematically analysed.


Participants often felt constrained from sharing their feelings with friends and families, who were perceived as unable to understand their experiences. They described a variety of forms of helpful informal social support, including social validation, which was a feature of support provided by others based on shared experience. For many participants, accessing groups based on shared experience was an important factor in their coping and recovery, and was a springboard to personal growth.


We recommend that people who respond to survivors’ psychosocial and mental healthcare needs after emergencies and major incidents should facilitate interventions for survivors and their social networks that maximise the benefits of shared experience and social validation.

Sunday, 10 April 2022

Understanding collective flight responses to (mis)perceived hostile threats in Britain 2010-2019: a systematic review of ten years of false alarms in crowded spaces

Understanding collective flight responses to (mis)perceived hostile threats in Britain 2010-2019: a systematic review of ten years of false alarms in crowded spaces: (2022). Understanding collective flight responses to (mis)perceived hostile threats in Britain 2010-2019: a systematic review of ten years of false alarms in crowded spaces. Journal of Risk Research. 

Friday, 31 December 2021

Three forms of Covid leadership

If the Covid pandemic has made one thing is clear, it is that we are interdependent in terms of risk and safety. So a collective response is required. From distancing, through ventilation, to vaccination programmes, decisions needed to be taken at the level of the whole community, society, and indeed the world. We need a coordinated response that prioritizes and supports the most urgent actions. Leadership is therefore essential. Three forms of leadership have been particularly evident over the course of the pandemic: identity leadership, coercive leadership, and laissez faire leadership. Only one of these is actually effective in enabling the collective response we need.


Identity leadership

This is true leadership, in that it leads to active engagement by ‘followers’. It attempts to create unity and a shared perspective on the problem and the solution, and to support effective action by the public. 

Assumptions of this approach: The public have the intention and capacity to do the right thing, if properly informed and supported. Understanding the public as part of the solution, not the problem. Treating the public as a resource and a partner.

Practices: Bring the public with you through engagement, promoting mitigations on the basis of shared identity and values. Embodying those values. Giving clear direction based on ‘who we are’ (shared interests, needs, and values). Regulations and rules (e.g., mask mandates) as a way of promoting norms and shared definitions of seriousness. Explaining the rationale behind measures. Working with community support groups, including mutual aid groups, by listening to them and supporting them materially. 

ExamplesHaslam et al. offer several examples including Bonnie Henry, who focused on her connections with her fellow British Columbians get them to listen to and embrace the demanding course of action that she was proposing. But perhaps the most cited example is that of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Adern’s use of identity rhetoric to mobilize her citizens.

Pros and Cons: May require considerable time and effort. Finding the leaders who have the required skills, background and motivation. But over two decades of research on the social psychology of leadership suggests that this approach will get the most active engagement and results.


Coercive leadership

The ‘command and control’ approach to managing emergencies has a long history. It occurs where the authorities have given up with, or don’t try, the more painstaking practices of engagement -- which include listening as well as talking. It represents a failure of leadership.

Assumptions of this approach: The public are a problem: they are wilfully obstructive or stupid or passive and ignorant.

Practices: As the public are assumed to be obstructive or stupid, forms of threat and punishment are foregrounded, including fines and imprisonment; and the mechanisms for such coercion are strengthened, such as surveillance and policing.

Examples£10K fines for failing to self-isolate. Compulsory vaccination.

Pros and Cons: These approaches produce backfire effects among sections of the public, whereby the public health measures are perceived as impositions and become a site of struggle and resistance. Coercion creates long-term damage to the relationship with the authorities. It may lead to compliance in some people in the short-term, but in the longer term these people will be less likely to listen and engage with public health messages and policies.


Laissez faire leadership

This approach is the abdication of leadership. Under the guise of relying on public ‘common sense’ and ‘resilience’, it entails abandoning moral and practical support.

Assumptions of this approach: This approach assumes that correct understandings of risk and mitigation already exist in each individual’s ‘common sense’, that each individual is solely responsible for outcomes, and therefore that the public can be blamed (as ‘irresponsible’) when things go badly, providing a rationale for adopting the coercive approach instead.

Practices: Advice to ‘be cautious’, ‘stay alert’, and use ‘common sense’, instead of specific guidance. Emphasis on ‘personal judgement’. Dropping all rules and regulations. Limited material support.

Example: July 19th 2021 so-called ‘freedom day’ in the UK entailed dropping most of the rules and the mask mandate but failing to provide the public with the recommended education on risk and mitigation that would enable informed decisions.

Pros and Cons: ‘Common sense’ is a repository of competing ideas. Without clear guidance, exhortations like ‘be cautious’ are open to multiple interpretations: what does it actually mean in practice? Unlike rules specifying behaviour – such as ‘stay home’ – it’s not clear to do with this advice on ‘how to feel’. By individualizing judgements of risk, there is a danger of people seeing risk simply in personal terms rather than in terms of others (including those more vulnerable than themselves). Worse, insufficient material support (including proper compensation for staying home and support for safe schools) means that, even where people understand how to act safely, they don’t have the resources to do so. Without clear leadership representing the collective will and properly organized support to equip members of the public with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions, this approach risks a chaotic and dangerous individualism.




Thursday, 9 September 2021


 New briefing from Independent SAGE: 

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Mitigating the new variant SARS-CoV-2 virus: How to support public adherence to physical distancing

Journalists often ask me how the public will behave when the next set of Covid-19 restrictions begins. Will they accept the rules or ignore them? This matters crucially right now. With rising infections in many areas of the country, and with the new variant of the virus rampant, physical distancing and other behavioural interventions are more important than ever.

The first thing I point out in response is that adherence to most of the behavioural regulations has been very high (often over 90%) throughout the pandemic.

The second thing I say is that adherence to physical distancing and avoiding contacts with others goes up in lockdown periods This probably reflects the recognition in the public that the greater restrictions signal greater need to adopt the mitigating measures.

Yet both anecdotes and the survey data suggest that adherence to 2m physical distancing declined in early December following the end of the second ‘lockdown’. It’s worth looking more closely at these dynamics of physical distancing, because this behaviour is perhaps the most visible form of adherence, and it is the one where breaches are often the subject of critical comments.

The UCL Covid-19 Social Study (data collected up to 13th December) shows that ‘complete’ and ‘majority’ compliance went up during the November ‘lockdown’, but that ‘as these [restrictions] have been eased in the past month, compliance has started to decrease again’.

The Office for National Statistics weekly survey for data collected in the period 2 to 6 December noted a drop (albeit small) in distancing behaviour (whereas for other protective behaviours the compliance rate remained high).

Journalists and others are ready to frame any such decline in adherence to physical distancing as public ‘fatigue’ - an ‘explanation’ we have heard from the beginning of the pandemic.

It is true, of course, that the behavioural interventions are hard to endure – and some (such as self-isolation) are a lot harder than others (such as handwashing). But recent analysis of public responses over the course of the pandemic is not consistent with the notion of ‘fatigue’. The review showed that (1) Overall adherence has been high, as already mentioned (2) There is not a linear decline (3) Intention has also remained high.

What is the real psychology that determines levels of adherence to physical distancing? There is now plenty of evidence on the psychological predictors. First, knowledge and perception of risk matter. Second, there is the belief that physical distancing is effective in providing protection. Third, a number of studies show that social norms, and in particular whether relevant others are doing the same, predicts own adherence. Fourth, group identification has been found to be a predictor, including national identification and identification with the family. Fifth, linked to this, we physically distance as a way of caring for others, and so empathy for those most vulnerable to the virus is also a predictor. Finally, a negatively predictor is low trust in government. This last point ties in with what we know about predictors of other behavioural mitigations, confidence in government action against the virus, being one of the most important.

Levels of public adherence to physical distancing have varied over time. There is evidence that key public events have affected the psychological predictors and hence adherence to distancing.

In May, there was a clear reduction in reported distancing (identified in both the ONS survey and the UCL Covid-19 Social Study) which appeared to be linked to two developments. First there was a change in the messaging (from ‘stay home’ to ‘stay alert’); this impacted upon people’s understanding of what they should actually do, as it was an injunction about how to feel rather than a specific behaviour.

Also in May, there was for some people an alienation from the government in response to the Cummings incident, which starkly revealed that while most people would be fined for breaking the rules, some would not.

There was a further decline in adherence levels in July. This appeared to be a result of a signalling effect whereby there was a media fanfare around ‘freedom’ and ‘end of lockdown’ leading up to the relaxation of restrictions on July 4th.

The decline in public adherence to physical distancing observed in early December may be due to a signalling effect similar to that in July. The positive publicity around the vaccine (approved December 2nd), the announcement of the relaxation for 5 days at Christmas (made on 24th November), and the ending of the second ‘lockdown’ (December 2nd) all came at the same time. Together they may well have communicated that risk is now lower and therefore less stringent adherence to physical distancing is required.

But with rising Covid infections in many areas of the country, and with the new variant of the virus at large, physical distancing and other behavioural interventions are more important than ever. For the public, it’s worth reminding ourselves that:

-       Physical distancing works (efficacy)

-       Most of your neighbours and wider circle are observing physical distancing most of the time (norms)

-       Think of those most vulnerable to the virus (empathy)

-       Do it for ‘us’ as a way of showing you care (group identification)

For the UK government, it’s important to avoid those actions that undermine these public beliefs and perceptions, and to increase those actions that support public understanding of and engagement with physical distancing and the other mitigating behaviours. This would mean:

-       Respond early to the threat instead of leaving it too late

-       Avoiding hyperbolic messaging on future ‘successes’

-       Provide practical advice on areas of risk and precise behavioural mitigations, in particular around close contact