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Public attitudes on compliance with COVID-19 lockdown restrictions

Understanding the role of law in society, and not only in strict ‘legal’ terms, has rarely been so important.

Current lockdown restrictions, introduced in March 2020, form the central plank of a wide range of government interventions, which to date include the 359-page Coronavirus Act 2020, 61 statutory instruments (emerging from 46 different parent acts), and an even greater amount of policy and guidance. Whilst an inevitably lively legal debate has ensued – describing these constraints as ‘almost certainly the most severe restrictions on liberty ever imposed’ – it is clear that a socio socio-legal analysis is also required.

A considerable proportion of public debate has concerned the probable length of the lockdown, alongside optimal routes to ‘normality’ that adequately account for ongoing public health concerns, around rate of infection and NHS capacity. Accordingly, an examination of how the public understand and experience the lockdown, and the significance of these perceptions for compliance, is vitally essential to develop a clear picture of how lockdown restrictions are working.

We were particularly keen to find out how people understand the rules, whether they see themselves as compliant, what drives compliance, and how the rules relate to ordinary perceptions of rights. Through an initial national survey from our Nuffield Foundation supported Law and Compliance during COVID-19 project, we now have a preliminary snapshot.

Some key preliminary findings, taken from our first interim report, are outlined below. In the longer term, we will conduct a more detailed statistical analysis that further explores the drivers of compliance. Survey data will also be supplemented by ongoing qualitative work, alongside a more general analysis of the Government’s interventions.


Initial key findings

Compliance: Most respondents (99%) claim to know, mostly or exactly, what activities are permitted under the lockdown restrictions. Most (85%) also said it was easy to follow any changes made. However, there was extensive disagreement on what is (and is not) allowed in relation to specific rules. There was particular confusion regarding some of the more complex exceptions to general prohibitions. For instance, only 68% of respondents knew that it is permitted to move to another address because of a fear of violence at home.

It was clear that although most respondents are largely following lockdown rules, a sizeable proportion of them reported failing to observe strict compliance (we asked about their experience in the week before the survey). Furthermore, respondents reported breaking a rule, while others, although not regarding themselves as breaking rules, reported ‘bending’ rules. Almost a third (31.8%) of respondents broke or ‘bent’ a restriction at least once during the seven-day period preceding the survey.

Approximately half of our respondents (48%) predicted that they would find it harder to follow rules the longer lockdown continued. Equally, approximately half (52%) predicted they would find it harder to comply should lockdown rules become stricter. A smaller proportion (38%) predicted difficulty in the event of a second lockdown being introduced after current restrictions are lifted.

Social solidarity: We examined the extent to which people felt they owed a duty to others to comply with the restrictions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our findings confirm that most people feel a strong sense of owing an obligation to their families to comply with the lockdown (76%), more so than in relation to neighbours (53%) or the country more generally (55%). It was particularly striking that even more people feel this strong sense of compliance obligation in relation to NHS workers (78%).

The converse of a felt duty to comply with the lockdown rules is a sense of the lockdown violating ordinary perceptions of one’s ‘rights’. Most people saw the lockdown as violating various ‘rights’ but felt that the violation was acceptable in the circumstances of the current pandemic. However, a significant minority of respondents reported that the violation of various ‘rights’ was unacceptable, notwithstanding the current circumstances. The strongest sense of an unacceptable rights violation related to the notion of people having a ‘right’ to fully support those who need them.

Challenges: Although the lockdown is centrally focused on containing the spread of infection and protecting the NHS’s capacity to cope, it is clear that such a radical and widespread change to how society functions will have significant negative effects on people’s lives. We asked respondents to indicate whether they had experienced a significant problem or dispute in relation to key aspects of life. Our findings suggest that problems with mental health, loneliness and financial worries are most prevalent. But also of concern was the 1% who reported problems of violence or abuse within the home, particularly in light of the earlier finding (above) that only 68% of respondents knew that it is permitted to move to another address because of a fear of violence.

Privacy: Contact tracing is a technique used to reduce the spread of infections, commonly used in the sexual health context. The Government is rolling out contact tracing to help understand and limit the spread of COVID-19. As a result, there have been concerns that this approach represents a worrying invasion of privacy. Our findings suggest that there is a slight lean towards willingness to trade privacy to shorten the length of lockdown (54% are willing to sacrifice some of their privacy and 39% are not). It is not inconceivable that these figures will move as contract tracing is introduced.


Preliminary conclusions

Overall, our initial findings suggest that people think they comprehend the rules, and are generally willing to comply. They view the interference with their sense of ‘rights’ as broadly justified, and though it might prove difficult would try to continue to comply with future restrictions should they be extended or tightened further. However, there is a striking lack of agreement on what is understood as permitted in relation to particular activities. Many also report breaking or bending the rules. As we collect more data over the coming months, these dynamics may change but, whatever happens, we will learn much about the important question of why people obey (or break) the law.


Professor Simon Halliday, Dr Jed Meers, and Dr Joe Tomlinson are all based at York Law School. They research the role of law in society, with a particular focus on the relationship between the citizen and the state.

We are grateful to Dr Mark Wilberforce for his support with this research. This research was kindly funded by the Nuffield Foundation (Grant Reference JUS /FR-000022588). The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.


Posted 12/05/2020 12:22

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