British Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a media briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in Downing Street, London, Britain January 15, 2021.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a media briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in Downing Street, London. Image Credit: Reuters

London: People across England are about to be hit with a deluge of new government adverts on television, radio and social media containing one blunt demand: Stay at home.

It’s a familiar message - and that may be why the public seems to be shrugging it off.

The data shows Britons are far more active during the current third national lockdown than when the first emergency “stay at home” order was given last spring. There’s more traffic on the roads, more people on trains and more shoppers making trips out.

Government officials worry too many are flouting the rules as Prime Minister Boris Johnson urges the public to try harder to avoid spreading coronavirus. With the National Health Service buckling under the weight of Covid-19 patients, the U.K. already has the highest death toll in Europe at more than 87,000.

While there are early signs that infection rates are starting to fall in places like London, and one person in 20 has now been vaccinated, officials warn life still might not be back to normal by spring.

Images of a state health-care system collapsing would risk inflicting further huge damage to Johnson’s standing, with public confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis already severely dented since it began.

Hospital crisis

“We are now seeing cancer treatments sadly postponed, ambulances queuing, and intensive care units spilling over into adjacent wards,” Johnson said on Friday. “This is not the time for the slightest relaxation of our national resolve and our individual efforts.”

Last week, schools and businesses were shut and people were told to stay home for work if they possibly could, and to avoid all journeys unless they were essential.

Despite the crisis, traffic on U.K. roads was still running at 63% of pre-pandemic levels on Jan. 11, government figures showed. That’s almost double the rate at the beginning of the first lockdown in early April, when traffic fell to 35% of normal levels.

Public transport use is also up, with four times the number of rail passengers this week than at the start of the spring lockdown. Despite the closure of non-essential stores, more people are out shopping this time, too, according to research firm Springboard.

Schools are open only for children of key workers but are reporting much higher attendance levels than in the spring. Latest government figures show that 14% of pupils in state-funded schools were in on Jan. 11, compared to an overall level of just 2% in April.

Rule breakers

Given the stark threat facing the country, why are people going out more than they did when the pandemic first hit? Is there more rule-breaking, is the public just bored, or are the rules themselves not tough enough?

The picture is not unique to the U.K. Elsewhere in Europe, people have grown tired of wave after wave of restrictions. What makes England different is that even from the start, the messaging was mixed from a government that was reluctant to curb people’s liberties.

In Spain and Italy, which imposed harsh lockdowns from the beginning, entire families became accustomed to living with life-altering restrictions. In Madrid and Milan, everyone wears a mask outside, and children must wear them at school. In London, face coverings outdoors are still optional.

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned that citizens would “understandably get fatigued” with the restrictions.

But in recent surveys people insist they are still following the rules. Stephen Reicher, a U.K. government adviser and professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, dismissed the concept of lockdown “fatigue” as a way for the authorities to shift the blame onto the public.

“Some of the rules and the messaging around them may be the problem,” he wrote in the British Medical Journal. For one thing, during the summer ministers encouraged people to go back to work and gave them discounts to eat in restaurants.

Some of the restrictions do appear to be more relaxed now compared to the start of the first lockdown: Nurseries are open to all children, there are childcare and support bubbles, and people can meet up with someone else for exercise. Restaurants are also open - albeit only for takeaway meals.

Mixed messages

Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London and a government adviser, said “having more things open sends a mixed message” and makes people doubt that the country is “at crisis point.”

“On the one hand they are saying ‘stay at home,’ on the other hand they are allowing universities, nurseries, places of worship, non-essential businesses to stay open,” she said.

But increased activity could also be down to a change in attitude toward the virus some 11 months into the pandemic. Robert Dingwall, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, said people were understandably frightened in the spring but it’s now become “normalized, a routine hazard.”

He said that for many people who hadn’t fallen ill with the virus, there was “more and more discrepancy” between their everyday experiences and the government press conferences reporting countless deaths.

The Cabinet Office said the government had “set out clear instructions to the public about what they need to do” to suppress the disease and the “public has made enormous sacrifices, to prevent our NHS from becoming overwhelmed and help save lives.”

But senior government ministers have confused the picture by offering different versions of the rules. Home Secretary Priti Patel said Thursday that people should exercise alone, even though the rules allow activity with a friend.

Johnson himself was criticized for cycling in the Olympic Park in east London, 7 miles away from his Westminster home, despite guidelines saying people should stay in their local areas.

In the end, it all comes back to the prime minister. A libertarian at heart, he has struggled from the start with the idea of curbing freedoms. In December he declared it would be “frankly inhuman” to ban people from gathering over Christmas, before being forced to do just that as the virus surged days later.

Even now, Johnson can’t quite bring himself to be definitive in his messaging. In a Twitter video on Friday, he addressed people planning to leave their homes to go out this weekend. “Please,” he said. “Really, think twice.”