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Exploring the attitudes and behaviours of different social groups in relation to compliance with coronavirus (COVID-19) government guidance across the UK

Links to detailed research findings

This page allows you to access the detailed research findings from a qualitative study undertaken by IFF Research, which was commissioned by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Its aim was to understand compliance with coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance in depth in the UK, among the following six social groups in the UK:

  • Low-income workers
  • Young people
  • Students
  • Parents with dependent children
  • People from an ethnic minority
  • High-income workers

There are also separate findings on participants’ feelings and compliance around the coronavirus vaccines.

A brief introduction and summary of the key findings is followed by links to the detailed findings for each social group.

Introduction and key findings

Awareness and understanding of, and compliance with, the official guidance to reduce the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) varies among the UK population. The ONS commissioned this study to explore these social groups’ compliance in depth, in order to understand factors influencing adherence to protective behaviours.

When individuals were not following the guidance, it was often for practical reasons with a well-intentioned rationale behind it – for example, to support the mental wellbeing of themselves or others.

When not following the guidance, individuals were often weighing up the likelihood of catching or spreading the virus and substituting official guidance with their own risk reduction measures. Sometimes these decisions were flawed, due to an incomplete understanding of how the virus spreads; misconception that social mixing is low risk; or a lack of appreciation of the risk of passing the virus on to someone more vulnerable when social mixing.

The key findings were:

  • Overall, compliance was high and many participants in the study had a good awareness of the “Hands, Face, Space” government guidance (to wash and sanitise hands, wear a mask and keep a two metre distance from others) and of how the coronavirus spreads.
  • Some participants did not comply with social mixing guidance and these participants often did not understand the rationale behind not meeting people from other households indoors.
  • Some participants from the groups interviewed, particularly participants from the young people group, mentioned a concern that the lack of socialising had a negative impact on their mental well-being.
  • Fear of the coronavirus and passing it on to others, especially the vulnerable, motivated many participants across all groups to comply with the guidance.
  • Some participants were demotivated from following the guidance by seeing others, including their peers and public figures, not complying with the guidance.
  • A few participants did not trust the seriousness of the coronavirus or questioned the effectiveness of the COVID-19 guidance, particularly those from ethnic minority groups or those on low income.
  • Many students and young people showed lower levels of concern for the guidance when among their peers, because they perceived that they were unlikely to either catch COVID-19 or be seriously affected by it if they did catch it because of their age.
  • A few participants who were very optimistic that the vaccines would bring an end to the pandemic, felt the vaccines made them more likely to comply, as they saw the current lockdown restrictions as ‘the last stretch.’

The detailed findings for each social group

Detailed findings for each social group can be viewed using the links below:

The separate findings on participants’ feelings and compliance around the coronavirus vaccines can be viewed here.

Please note that this is qualitative analysis, intended to understand participants’ circumstances, attitudes and behaviour in depth and detail, rather than to be ‘representative’ or measure the incidence of these attitudes or behaviours. When describing the results, we use terms such as ‘many’, ‘some’ or ‘a few’ to give a relative indication of the extent to which views were expressed or behaviours reported within the sample. The term ‘many’ is used to mean that a view or behaviour is fairly widespread within a particular group of participants; while, at the other extreme, ‘few’ indicates that a findings applied only to a small handful. ‘Some’ is used to indicate a middle-ground between ‘many’ and ‘few’.

An overview of summary findings is available to view on the ONS website here.

The Quality and Methodology (QMI) report is available to view on the ONS website here.

Methodology summary

In total, 180 participants took part in the study, with 30 participants interviewed in each of the six social groups. The six demographic groups of interest were determined from a literature review and analysis of the ONS’ Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) data on compliance levels.

During recruitment, participants’ compliance status was identified as well as their demographic information. Participants gave explicit informed consent before taking part in the interview.

Within each social group there was an even split by compliance status in a 10:10:10 ratio: non-compliant, low compliance, and high compliance. Each social group also contained a good level of diversity in terms of age, gender, working status, education level, and geography.

Each qualitative interview lasted up to 90-minutes and took place either via a video or telephone call.

Following the qualitative interview, participants in the young people and student groups were invited to take part in an online forum. In total, 10 students and 12 young people took part in this exercise.

Participants from all other groups (the ethnic minority participants, low income workers, parents and high income participants) were invited to complete an online diary followed by a further 30-minute in-depth interview. Fifteen participants from each of these groups completed the diary activity and follow-up interview.

All fieldwork took place between November 2020 and January 2021.