The psychology of 'Freedom Day'

How did the public behave after ‘freedom day’ and why?

09 August 2021

The question that psychologists were asked most frequently in relation to so-called ‘freedom day’ on 19 July 2021, when almost all domestic covid-mitigation measures were dropped in England by the government, was how would the public respond? Levels of public adherence to most of the protective behaviours had been high throughout the pandemic. But the very name ‘freedom day’ conveyed that the previous requirements were shackles that could now be disregarded with relief. At that time, however, levels of infection were skyrocketing. So, how would the public behave?

The short answer was “it’s complicated”. Behaviour was hard to predict, given the multiple and sometimes interacting factors known to be at play. Public behaviour in the pandemic is not, and has not been, homogeneous. Research in the months beforehand suggested that one section of the public were keen to continue with the protective behaviours such as hand hygiene, physical-distancing, wearing face coverings and ensuring good air circulation; and another section were very keen to discard them and return to a sense of pre-pandemic ‘normal’.

In the previous year’s so-called ‘freedom day’, 4 July 2020, there was a decline in public adherence to protective behaviours in the days leading up to the loosening of restrictions. The same thing occurred in 2021. Most likely, the advance publicity for ‘freedom day’ suggested that it was already safe or permitted to drop the protective behaviours, at least among some people. 

A second significant factor this year was the dropping of the mandate on face-coverings in England. Unlike in the case of physical distancing, wearing face coverings was the law. Recent research has shown that people use policy and legal position as an indicator of what is serious. And there is circumstantial evidence that the high levels of adherence to wearing face coverings following the mandate in July last year were more to do with the meaning conveyed by legislation than with coercion. Few people were fined (suggesting that police were not widely imposing the legislation or that people were largely adherent); and a survey in April 2020 found that social norms and a sense of 'we're all in it together' were stronger predictors of adherence with lockdown measures than legal compulsion. Therefore the recent change in policy whereby the mandate was dropped may have sent a very strong signal (to some people) that the pandemic had become less serious. 

While the notion of ‘freedom day’ and the dropping of the face covering mandate might drive reduced adherence, working in the opposite direction was public awareness of the high rate of infections leading up to 19 July. Perception of risk has consistently been a predictor of adherence, and has mirrored the level of infection. In addition, a number of businesses and organisations declared that they would carry on requiring people to wear face coverings, possibly countering the government’s (implied) message that the situation was now less serious.

Interacting with these competing forces, is the behaviour of other people around us. The wearing (or not wearing) of face coverings of our reference groups is important in determining the extent to which we do the same. We infer risk and appropriateness from the actions of people we know – and many studies across the pandemic have identified perceived group norms as a key predictor of own adherence.

So what actually happened? 

In the weeks leading up to so-called ‘freedom day’, an ONS survey found that two-thirds indicated that they would continue to wear face-coverings. On the day itself, a survey of major rail stations found that passenger numbers were 20% down on pre-covid levels, suggesting that a proportion of the public were still trying to avoid crowded spaces. And ONS survey data from the period 28 July to 1 August 2021 found that most adults (92%) said they continued to wear face coverings, while the percentage of adults who said they ‘always’ or ‘often’ maintained physical distancing was 53% (down from 63% just before ‘freedom day’) in the same period. These data and other evidence therefore suggest that, for at least a large proportion of the UK public, there was still a desire to maintain protective behaviours. But is the motivation sufficient for sustaining protective behaviours?

What’s missing and how behavioural science can help

Across different psychological models of health behaviour, there is agreement that while motivation is important, it is not sufficient. Capability and opportunity are also vital. A recent publication from SPI-B (the behavioural science subgroup of SAGE) made the case for supporting capability in the public very clearly. Early in 2021, the UK government commissioned SPI-B to provide advice on how to sustain behaviours that minimise risk of Covid-19 transmission once most legal restrictions were lifted. The current opening up of society takes one part of this SPI-B report – that of personal responsibility in a context of lifted restrictions – but completely neglects the most important message: the need for capability.

The issue of asking people to take personal responsibility is inextricably linked to how people can make informed risk-assessments – how can people judge how to minimise the risk to themselves and others (thereby exercising personal responsibility) on an individual basis? The SPI-B paper provided extensive suggestions, based on what works in other domains of health behaviour. These included a clear, well designed ongoing multi-channel communication and education campaign to ensure people across all sectors of society understand the current levels of risk associated with different settings and scenarios and how to mitigate those risks (e.g., how face coverings work, differences between indoor and outdoor risk, importance of ventilation). This echoes the early guidance of our COVID-19 Behavioural Science and Disease Prevention group in April 2020. The SPI-B paper also recommended resources for individuals, businesses and organisations to ensure they have the most up-to-date information about the level of risk they face in their locality and how to adapt their behaviour in response to that level of risk.

Many people are motivated and doing their best to protect themselves and others around them, but still without sufficient support for capability to make informed decisions or opportunity to perform protective behaviours. If the legal requirement to wear face coverings, the ‘two metre’ rule, and the restrictions on mass events have all gone, it is not clear to the public what they need to do to keep themselves, their loved ones, and their community safe. This is the advice that the UK government asked for from scientists, but they have ignored key features of the information provided.  

The government and public health would benefit from a wide-scale investment in and application of behavioural science and psychological insight. There is a wealth of expertise and resource available. Embedding into existing teams can ensure such guidance is used as intended to benefit population health.

Written on behalf of the British Psychological Society COVID-19 Behavioural Science and Disease Prevention Taskforce: 

Professor John Drury, Professor of Social Psychology, University of Sussex

Professor Christopher J. Armitage, Professor of Health Psychology, University of Manchester

Professor Madelynne A. Arden, Professor of Health Psychology, Sheffield Hallam University

Dr Tracy Epton, Lecturer in Health Psychology, University of Manchester

Dr Gillian Shorter, Lecturer in Psychology, Queens University Belfast

Professor Lucie Byrne-Davis, Professor of Health Psychology, University of Manchester

Dr Paul Chadwick, Associate Professor, Clinical Psychologist, University College London

Professor Jo Hart, Professor of Health Psychology, University of Manchester

Dr Atiya Kamal, Senior Lecturer in Health Psychology, Birmingham City University

Lesley Lewis, Health Practitioner, Public Health Wales

Dr Emily McBride, (BPS Division of Health Psychology Policy Lead), Senior Research Fellow, University College London

Professor Daryl O’Connor, Professor of Psychology, University of Leeds

Professor Vivien Swanson, Professor of Psychology, University of Stirling

Dr Ellie Whittaker, Health Improvement Officer, North Yorkshire County Council

Professor Angel Chater, (BPS Division of Health Psychology Chair and Covid-19 Behavioural Science and Disease Prevention Taskforce Lead), Professor of Health Psychology and Behaviour Change, University of Bedfordshire

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