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Is the public really ignoring Covid-19 rules?

People are moving around more because workplaces are still open, not because they’re ignoring guidance.  

Yesterday was one of the grimmest days the UK has endured during the pandemic: 1,564 more Covid-19 deaths were recorded, the highest single-day figure yet. This means that it is likely more than 100,000 people have now died in circumstances involving coronavirus. 

Hospitalisations also continue to rise, with the number of occupied adult critical care beds standing at 4,632 as of 10 January – more than 50 per cent higher than at the beginning of November and far higher than average for this time of year.

While confirmed Covid-19 case numbers across the UK are showing signs of plateauing – having fallen to 47,525 on 13 January, from 52,618 a week earlier – the lag in hospitalisations and deaths following infection means these figures are likely to keep rising over the coming weeks.

Although the lockdown is beginning to show signs of supressing case numbers, the UK currently has the highest death rate among the G20, and the government has been quick to point the finger at an apparent lack of public compliance with the restrictions.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for stronger enforcement of the restrictions, and the Telegraph has reported a government source claiming the current exercise rules are “being used as an excuse for people to go for a coffee in the park with their friends” – suggesting the public is not obeying the current rules.

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Figures from YouGov show most members of the public also believe compliance is a problem, with a perception that people are taking this lockdown somewhat less (41 per cent) or much less (31 per cent) seriously than first. 

However, the observed data reveals this perception isn’t necessarily accurate. According to the Covid-19 social study by researchers at University College London, people are generally obeying the rules as much as they did last March. Some 96.2 per cent of people felt they were following the rules with some slight “bending” – and 56.4 per cent said they were following the rules completely. That compares to 96.5 per cent and 63.5 per cent during the first week of the March lockdown.


The study also showed that only 62 per cent of people are isolating for ten or more days when they develop symptoms of Covid-19. This is a lower figure than the previous estimate in May, which found 75 per cent of people reporting Covid-19 symptoms had left the house in the previous 24 hours.

[see also: Fighting Covid-19 is an exercise in delayed gratification – a truth that Boris Johnson has failed to grasp]

In June, a YouGov survey found that more than a fifth of key workers lose some income if they self-isolate, including 6 per cent who do not get paid at all. In the lowest paid sectors, such as delivery, transport and food, almost half of workers lose income by self-isolating. Expanding statutory sick pay (currently £95.85 per week) could help more workers to comply with the self-isolation guidelines.

Overall, people are moving around more than in previous lockdowns, and spending less time at home now than last March, according to figures from Google. However, this isn’t because people are breaking the rules more than previously.

The figures show comparable levels of mobility with those last March in most categories of movement. The glaring exception is workplaces, which are seeing more movement compared with the first lockdown. In short, if people are moving around more, it is probably because more businesses are open now, meaning more people are travelling to work.


Public Health England (PHE) estimates that the new variant is predicted to be anywhere between 10 to 70 per cent more transmissible than the previous strain of the virus, and it is now the dominant strain. Separate PHE estimates using a proxy measure indicate transmissibility could be lower than this (between 30 and 50 per cent more transmissible). However, this still means any increase in contact between people compared with previous lockdowns is going to have a greater effect on the number of cases.


PHE also publishes weekly reports on the locations reported by people testing positive. The latest report, released today, shows that people tend to catch the virus in supermarkets, either as a worker or customer. As in the first wave, care homes are also seeing rising numbers of outbreaks: there were 739 incidents with at least one case of Covid-19 in the week to 10 January, up from 549 the week before. 

Outdoor settings did not even make the list of common locations in the latest week, showing that any proposal of tightening rules on exercise is likely to have only a limited effect.

If the government wants to reduce the number of cases faster, more focus should be placed on helping businesses and workplaces to close, and encouraging people to self-isolate.

[see also: We are watching the slow-motion car crash of decisions taken weeks ago]

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