The curious legend of the lockdown house party

By announcing new £800 fines for people attending house parties, the government is distracting from the reality of a rule-abiding public.

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From next week, if you attend a house party of more than 15 people in England, you could be fined £800. This penalty will double for each further house party you attend, up to a maximum of £6,400.

To which I hear you cry from the tinny Spotify-soundtracked solitude of your bedroom: Where are all these house parties? I haven’t been invited to one, let alone enough to commit repeat offences…

It’s a good question, and key to what’s behind this addition to the miserable and ever-lengthening shopping list that is our coronavirus regulations.

This idea of house parties has become a preoccupation of ministers and police chiefs – a symbol of an unruly public conjured up every time the pandemic is looking particularly bleak (see my colleage Ailbhe Rea on the recent “compliance week”, for example).

The vast majority of people are obeying lockdown restrictions. Compliance with measures to stop the spread of coronavirus, as instructed by the government, is impressively high: 90 per cent of us handwash after getting home, 96 per cent of us wear masks, and 93 per cent of us avoid physical contact outside of our household, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Less than 1 per cent of people never maintain the recommended distance and less than 1 per cent of people never wear a mask when required, according to the latest findings from UCL’s Covid-19 Social Study. This research – which surveys 70,000 adults every week and is the best indication we have of coronavirus psychology and behaviour – also found compliance had actually increased since the autumn “across all demographic groups”.

In fact, younger adults – those aged 18-29, who we are likeliest to consider potential house party attendees – have been “most consistent” in requesting tests when they have symptoms out of all age groups, and have been “better at self-isolating for the recommended number of days both if they develop symptoms or are told to self-isolate from contact with others”. They show a “much lower rate” of not isolating at all.

In terms of breaches, the Crown Prosecution Service says there were just 1,137 offences in England and Wales from 1 April to 30 September prosecuted under coronavirus legislation forbidding unnecessary travel and unlawful gatherings.

Nevertheless, the belief that widespread rule-breaking is spreading coronavirus is a popular one. The majority of Britons blame the public for the rise in cases over the past month (58 per cent, according to YouGov).

There are, of course, examples of house parties being broken up by police forces. When the Home Secretary Priti Patel announced the £800 house party fine, chair of the the National Police Chiefs’ Council Martin Hewitt spoke alongside her, listing three examples of recent house parties stopped by officers around England.

And house parties during a pandemic are, of course, a bad idea. That’s why the UK already has a ban on households mixing indoors. Being indoors with other people is an easy way to spread the virus, as my colleague Sarah Manavis has explained very clearly.

Highlighting those house parties that do occur may be helpful for individual police forces to demonstrate the sometimes dangerous work they do, but this approach can backfire. As Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this month:

“The problem is we imply the public is the weak link when the evidence shows we’re not. The reason why it is counterproductive is twofold: First, if you tell people ‘everyone is doing this, stop it’, what you communicate is ‘everyone is doing it’. You set a ‘negative norm’ and people think ‘Everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?’"

Rather than, say, focusing on the one-off underground rave, the media should be telling “dramatic stories of compliance”, according to Professor Reicher. 

Another problem is padding out legislation with unnecessary new penalties. It is already illegal for households to mix indoors, and there are pre-existing fines: £200 for those attending illegal indoor gatherings (£100 if paid early), and up to £10,000 for organisers of illegal gatherings of more than 30 people.

Instead, as my colleague Stephen Bush has written, it would be more helpful to people who cannot afford to self-isolate to raise statutory sick pay (which is still at a pitiful £95.85 a week), invest in a quarantining infrastructure and properly fund isolation.

As Professor Reicher put it: “Going to house parties endangers the community. But to concentrate on the odd party while millions are allowed and required to go to work every day is like concentrating on a leaky washer while a flood is about to wash your house away.”

The New Statesman has asked the seven largest police forces in England how many house parties their officers have had to shut down during the pandemic. We have yet to receive all these figures.

Kent Police told us that since March 2020, 729 people have been fined between £200 and £1,000 for having house parties, making unnecessary journeys, breaching travel regulations or going to public places while having coronavirus. A more specific breakdown wasn’t available, but just two examples of house parties were described to the New Statesman.

Assistant Chief Constable of Kent Police Claire Nix said:

“The limitations posed by lockdown are difficult for everyone and it is testament to the people of Kent that the vast majority of residents have changed their way of life to help stop the spread of this virus and protect the most vulnerable within the community. I would like to thank these people for making such sacrifices, which will not only take the strain off the NHS, but ultimately save lives…

“Officers will continue to patrol the county, explaining, engaging and encouraging people to adhere to the regulations. They will take action against those who show a blatant disregard for others by holding parties or going out when they have a positive Coronavirus test.”

Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Tyron Joyce of West Yorkshire Police said:

“I want to thank the vast majority of people who are abiding by the Covid regulations. Throughout the pandemic, we have engaged with the public, explained the regulations and encouraged them to comply. This remains the best way to protect friends, our families and the places we live in.

“We are in a critical period; we are in a national lockdown and it is against the law to meet socially. My officers and staff continue to explain and encourage the public to comply with regulations.  However, where people blatantly disregard the safety of others, we will use the full range of legislative powers we have.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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