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12 January 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 12:17pm

We are watching the slow-motion car crash of decisions taken weeks ago

The public debate about compliance with Covid-19 restrictions wrongly draws a link between the public behaviour we are observing now and the crisis unfolding.

By Ailbhe Rea

The government’s week of stern warnings about lockdown compliance continues this morning, as Matt Hancock last night refused to rule out introducing tougher measures in England, while Nicola Sturgeon today convenes her own cabinet to consider harsher restrictions in Scotland.

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg reports that “there is real concern in government that the public, this time round, is just not paying attention to the rules as closely as they did back in the spring”, while other outlets are reporting that these tougher measures (such as closing construction sites, banning takeaways, or banning outdoor exercise with a member of another household as is currently permitted) could be introduced “if there is no improvement in compliance”.

I think that parenthesis encapsulates the problem: we are talking about lower compliance, when what we are observing is compliant behaviour within more relaxed rules compared with March. This is borne out by the data: mobility data, as well as anecdote, does show that people are moving around more than in March. But surveys continue to indicate a similar level of rule-compliance as we saw in the first lockdown and, notably, the public is more worried about coronavirus now than at any point since mid-April at the first peak, according to Savanta ComRes polling.

There is a debate to be had as to whether the way to address this issue is by amplifying the “stay at home” message, emphasising the need for compliance with existing rules, or, as Stephen argued yesterday, by addressing the large amount of economic activity and behaviour that is still permitted under this lockdown, and that wasn’t last time. England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, has, in good faith, been emphasising the “stay at home” message, urging people to consider whether each of their potential social contacts is necessary, and he seemed to suggest he was unconvinced by the prospect of tinkering around the edges of the rules. But there is quite a lot of bad faith in the “enforcement drive” from government, too, focusing on a problem with compliance when there is no evidence to suggest increased rule-breaking, and bemoaning behaviour (such as “socialising” by going for a walk with another person) that the government itself allows under the rules.

[see also: Why the government is wrong to blame the public for the current spread of coronavirus]

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The ONS has just announced that, last year, the UK recorded the highest levels of excess deaths since the Second World War. Deaths from coronavirus continue to rise, as do hospital admissions, and our health service is under serious strain. My concern is that this discussion around poor compliance is an attempt to draw an unfounded link between the behaviour we are observing at the moment and the crisis that is unfolding before our eyes. What we are watching is the consequence of actions taken weeks ago: case numbers from interactions around a week ago, hospital admissions from infections around two weeks ago, and deaths from infections two, three and four weeks ago. 

You might remember what was happening around then: four weeks ago, London was still under tier two restrictions and was only about to be moved into tier three, amid reports that Michael Gove’s calls to put the capital into tier three weeks earlier had been overruled. On 22 December, Sage recommended a nationwide lockdown and was overruled. Alarm bells around the planned easing of Christmas restrictions were ignored. At the 11th hour, Christmas was cancelled for London and the new tier four areas, but it happened so late that many went ahead with their plans, while the festive easing continued across the rest of the country. 

We will see the impact of our current behaviour in a few weeks’ time, first with a fall in case rates, then a fall in hospital admissions, and then, eventually, a fall in death rates, provided this lockdown works in the way everyone hopes it will. But as Stephen Powis, the NHS England medical director, warned yesterday: “We’re still to see the full impact of the Christmas restrictions reflected in those hospital numbers.”

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We should be under no illusions about what we are witnessing at this time of crisis, and it is not the result of widespread rule-breaking by the public. We are watching the slow-motion car crash of decisions taken, and not taken, by the government weeks ago.