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25 September 2020

Most people support restrictions over Christmas – so why won’t they quarantine?

Exclusive polling shows lockdown measures remain popular in Britain – but self-isolation is, for too many, simply unaffordable.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Since Covid-19 began spreading in the UK, lockdown measures have generally been popular. A snap YouGov poll on the evening of the official lockdown on 23 March found 93 per cent of respondents supported the Prime Minister’s plan. In May, four in five told Opinium they didn’t want measures eased. Earlier this week, Ipsos MORI found 60 per cent of Britons back the “rule of six” announced on 9 September, and YouGov’s shows 78 per cent back the latest lockdown measures (early pub and restaurant closures, working from home again, and reductions in wedding and indoor sport attendees), with the most criticism being they don’t go far enough.

The New Statesman can also reveal that a majority of people (53 per cent) would support the “rule of six” still being in place over Christmas, while only 21 per cent would oppose it, according to exclusive polling conducted by Redfield and Wilton Strategies for the NS on 22-23 September.

Although approval ratings of the pandemic response reached an all-time low this week (half the public now feels the government is handling coronavirus very or fairly badly), this has not been matched by a surge in negativity towards restrictions and lockdown measures.

“Despite concerns about the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic overall, when it comes to many specific restrictions such as the rule of six, Britons remain broadly in favour,” commented Gideon Skinner, research director at Ipsos MORI.

The public has also generally been compliant when it comes to lockdown rules.

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A ten-city study by the LSE at the height of lockdown in April found 86 per cent never socialised with people outside their household, 62 per cent never went out for exercise, and 87 per cent did not travel for leisure purposes. And amid the second surge in cases, only 13 per cent in non-local lockdown areas have socialised with six or more people, falling to just 8 per cent in local lockdowns, according to an Office for National Statistics survey released 25 September.

See also: Why the government’s new quarantine payments are almost completely useless

Yet preliminary data from a new mass study surveying more than 31,000 people about self-isolation, led by King’s College London, suggests only 18 per cent of people with Covid-19 symptoms have been self-isolating, and only 11 per cent obeying when asked by contact tracers to stay at home.

The study, which collected data between 2 March and 5 August, found “self-reported adherence to test, trace and isolate behaviours was low” – a situation that has stayed “largely stable over time”.

So why is a population that complies with social restrictions and approves of lockdown measures but not self-isolating?

There is a big clue in this latest study. It finds the “intention to adhere to protective measures was much higher” than the proportion of people who did adhere.

This suggests that people are willing to self-isolate, but find they are unable, for practical reasons, when it comes to it.

Indeed, the study concludes: “Practical support and financial reimbursement is likely to improve adherence. Targeting messaging and policies to men, younger age groups, and key workers may also be necessary.”

As lead author Dr Louise E Smith, post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Psychological Medicine, King’s College London, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s something going on in the middle there – people might want to carry out these behaviours but might not be able to. That’s the first step in looking into how we can support people to help them adhere.”

A strong predictor of behaviour across the board in the survey was financial hardship – ie. those on lower incomes were less able to adhere to self-isolation rules. There was also difficulty among people with caring responsibilities – for example, those with children in school, or someone else in the household to care for. Fetching medicine, shopping and doing the school run all make staying indoors harder.

Ever since self-isolation rules were announced, this has been a persistent issue. Since March, the New Statesman has spoken to numerous people – particularly those working in poorly-paid jobs linked to the health service, such as care workers and hospital cleaners – who cannot afford to miss work for ten or 14 days of self-isolation.

Statutory sick pay remains at the low level of £95.85 per week, and many low-paid workers on part-time or casual contracts are not even eligible for that. In late August, I spoke to a care worker, on minimum wage and a zero-hours contract for a home care agency, who was ineligible for sick pay when he had to self-isolate for 14 days, for example.

“If you can work from home, obviously there’s no issue,” because you can work while self-isolating, he told me. “But the people who can’t are probably mostly essential workers, right?”

Eventually, the government appeared to wise up to this problem, beginning to trial new quarantine payments on the first day of September for people on Universal Credit or working tax credits in high-risk areas. (The study mentioned above was conducted before these new payments were announced.)

Yet, as we reported at the time, these payments only amounted to £13 extra a day. While this would be on top of any statutory sick pay and other benefits, it goes nowhere near reimbursing an employee’s full pay. These payments are also limited to places with high coronavirus concentration in England – even though the instruction to self-isolate applies to the whole population.

Whether or not this limited extra support makes a difference to whether people quarantine remains to be seen in the next survey on self-isolation adherence. But it’s clear that, from the beginning of March, financial and practical help with self-isolation was lacking – and the government only began to address that in early September, when cases had already begun rising again.

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