The attitudes and behaviours of ethnic minorities during the pandemic

1. Main findings

  • Some ethnic minority participants continued to socialise indoors with friends and family during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic but were compliant with other areas of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) government
  • Some participants accessed information relating to COVID-19 through social media, WhatsApp groups with friends or alternative news sources. A few participants found social media platforms and alternative news sources to be more trustworthy in comparison to mainstream news sources.
  • Some participants were also exposed to alternative views within their social environments that were not supportive of various aspects of the COVID-19 guidance, for example, information that questioned the effectiveness of facemasks in stopping the spread or questioned the seriousness of coronavirus
  • While many participants felt that the COVID-19 guidance would be beneficial in stopping the spread of coronavirus, some were sceptical as to the usefulness of various aspects of the COVID-19 guidance, or were mistrustful of its intentions. This tended to be among those who were exposed to unverified news and information sources regarding how best to stop the spread of coronavirus, or the extent of transmissibility of coronavirus.
  • Participants identified several factors that demotivated them from following the COVID-19 guidance including: unverified news and information sources; witnessing others’ non-compliance (for example family and friends, other members of the public and people in the public eye); and a perceived lack of punishment of those disregarding the rules. While these factors were demotivating, they did not always translate into non-compliance.
  • However, even when individuals were critically weighing up unverified news and information sources that they had been exposed to, they sometimes still took on board a more sceptical attitude to, for example, the severity of the pandemic, or the reliability of the COVID-19 guidance.

A full profile of the  ethnic minority participants interviewed for this research can be found in the ‘Quality and Methodology Information’ bulletin.

In these findings we use the term ‘coronavirus (COVID-19) government guidance’ and ‘COVID-19 guidance’ to refer to the official government guidance applicable at the time of each participant’s interview, relating to the coronavirus as published on government websites. This information incorporates both general advice from the government, and rules that are enforceable by law, that aim to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

2. Daily life during the coronavirus pandemic

Weekdays followed a pre-pandemic regular routine, minus commuting

Many ethnic minority participants reported that their weekday routines were much the same as they were before the pandemic. Those with children would do the school run (some of the interviews were conducted at a time when the schools were open) while others would carry out their working day. One major difference was the lack of a commute as many participants were working from home, and this was mostly seen as a positive, for the extra time it added to the day and also the removal of the need to travel.

For many, evenings were spent in their usual way – those with children would put them to bed in line with their usual routine and many would relax by watching television or cooking.

Those who normally exercised in the mornings or evening as part of their routine still reported doing so, although a few mentioned the loss of this activity in periods when gyms have been closed.

For a few Christian participants, attending church services was an important part of their lives prior to the pandemic. Church services tended to be moved online, with the exception of a couple of participants who still attended church services in person, with social distancing measures in place.

Weekends involved less socialising and fewer activities, but some still saw family and friends

One of the most common themes regarding daily life was the reduction of social activity as a result of COVID-19. This was felt most acutely at weekends, which was when many reported that they would have normally seen family and friends. Participants who enjoyed sports acutely felt the loss of this at weekends, for example playing football or basketball.

“It’s like you’re in jail now…you’re being locked in… it’s as though they’re having a hold on my life now.”

Female, age 65 to 69 years, ethnic minority participant, England

There was a split in attitudes when it came to seeing friends and family, particularly at weekends. Some participants followed the social distancing guidance more closely. In a few cases they chose not to even meet friends and family in permitted socially-distanced settings and only interacted with them via a video call. Some other participants continued to socialise and see friends and family, particularly at weekends. One participant felt that this behaviour was acceptable provided they were wearing a mask, washing their hands and ‘being sensible.’ Another said that they still do socialise for the sake of their mental wellbeing or that of their friends. A few felt that if ‘Eat out to help out’ (the government-led scheme to encourage people to use cafes and restaurants in summer 2020) was deemed acceptable then mixing with up to ten friends shouldn’t be any different. They reported that their socialising was less than it was before COVID-19 and they would no longer travel as far (for example, no longer travelling into London to see family). However, they would still see friends and families at weekends, either outside in large groups or inside houses on a regular basis (and for a few, this persisted in the lockdown periods).

Shopping has become a weekly, solo activity

Many participants reported a change in their shopping habits. While there was not much mention of switching to shopping online, it was a common behaviour to only shop once a week rather than more frequently or on an ad hoc basis. There were also reports of shopping as an individual rather than going as a family or couple.

Increased family time and improved family relationships

A few participants reflected that their relationships with their child or children had strengthened during the pandemic, as a result of the increased time they had spent together.

“We talk more as a family and do sit and watch a film together which is a good thing.’’

Female, age 45 to 49 years, ethnic minority participant, Wales

“We [mother and young son] have been spending time together outside walking, having picnics. We’ve talked a lot more about life in general … I feel he tells me everything now, much more than he did before! We never had a bad relationship, but now he’s more trusting of me.”

Female, age 30 to 34 years, ethnic minority participant, England

3. Behaviour in relation to COVID-19

Many participants were compliant in mask-wearing and hand-washing, as well as social distancing from other members of the public. Compliance with social distancing guidance with friends and family was more mixed, however. The ethnic minority participants also showed a greater variety of behaviours to limit the spread of coronavirus, than the other groups of participants interviewed. These included behaviours that are not set out in the COVID-19 guidance and were informed by their own assumptions or hearsay. This included wearing gloves, using a nasal spray and anti-bacterial mouthwash.

Wearing a mask

With a few exceptions, participants reported they were wearing masks in situations set out in the COVID-19 guidance. This included a few participants who didn’t necessarily think masks were required but decided to be ‘safe rather than sorry.’ A few also said that they would wear masks outdoors as an extra precaution. On the other hand, a few participants who reportedly visited friends or family (outside of a support bubble) said that they would not wear a mask on those occasions.

A few participants didn’t always wear a mask because of discomfort or due to doubts about their effectiveness.

A few participants struggled with mask wearing, yet tried their best to do so in settings where they were required, for example the supermarket or in church. One of these participants experienced discomfort and dizziness and so chose not to wear a mask when she would need to be in environments for a prolonged period, for instance when doing a big supermarket shop. In these situations, she would wear the NHS exemption card to show others her reason for not wearing the mask.

Handwashing and sanitising

Hand washing and sanitising was the piece of COVID-19 guidance most keenly and widely followed among the participants interviewed. Many reported regular hand washing and using sanitiser.

Social distancing

Many participants reported social distancing from people they did not know when outside and in public, particularly when shopping. A few mentioned the difficulties of dealing with other people’s behaviour, for example in supermarkets where they encountered people not wearing masks or leaning across them to reach items on shelves. A volunteer at a food bank said that it was a regular challenge when making deliveries as people’s instinct was to move close to her and often to try to hug her.

Another recurring behaviour was to avoid crowds where possible. There were a few examples given such as ordering food online, not taking public transport or shopping at times when supermarkets were likely to be a bit quieter.

There were a few cases of participants taking social distancing less seriously. This was either due to a lack of fear of coronavirus such as believing that they were healthy enough to be able to endure it easily, or due to the belief that wearing a mask should be sufficient to reduce the risk of infection. Some participants wouldn’t keep two metres away from people that they knew well, feeling that they trusted them to have been careful and not pose a transmission risk.

Meeting with friends and family

Some participants avoided seeing family and friends. This included participants who chose not to meet outside in a socially-distanced way, even during times when this was permitted in COVID-19 guidance.

Some other participants, however, reported that they still mixed with family and friends indoors despite the COVID-19 guidance against indoor socialising. Many of these participants described behaviour that they followed to offset any risk such as wearing masks, sanitising or washing hands, taking off shoes, not hugging, or wiping things down with anti-bacterial gel.

A few of these participants said that they had weighed the risk of socialising with friends and family indoors against their mental wellbeing needs. However, for many participants who continued to meet friends and family there was simply a feeling that the risk of infection was low or sufficiently mitigated as a result of the measures they had put in place.

For example, one participant continued to see her family and friends throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and continued to hug them.  She spent Christmas day at her parent’s house without any restrictions, along with her siblings and their spouses, as well as her grandchildren. At the time of interview, indoor mixing was prohibited. For this participant, meeting with family was an important part of her life, and she did not feel able to adhere to the social distancing guidance.

“I am not going to socially distance from my family and if they come over [to my house] I am not going to have them standing outside.”

Female, age 45 to 49 years, ethnic minority participant, England

A focus on developing good general personal health rather than following the COVID-19 guidance

A few participants expressed the belief that if they were generally healthy then they would not be at risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19, and that by maintaining their own health, they did not need to follow the COVID-19 guidance.

For example, one participant had worked on his respiratory fitness to protect himself, and another focused on having a healthy diet. He stated that he would not be receiving COVID-19 vaccines, deeming this unnecessary if he followed a good diet. This view was shared by another participant who believed that his own immune system was more important than medicines when it came to COVID-19 and that the most important thing was to boost it with supplements and vitamins, an outlook that he said he actively shared with friends and family.

Self-isolation

There were not many mentions of self-isolation among the participants interviewed. One participant was initially shielding for health reasons but had become much more active in terms of leaving the house and making social plans, including attending a large party,  since the government downgraded the threat level of the coronavirus in August 2020.

A few participants reported that they had isolated and had been able to do this with ease (with ample space in the home and the ability to work from home). One mentioned that her daughter needed to isolate following an outbreak in their school, but the family were able to keep their distance within the home and wore masks, which made them feel safe.

4. Participants’ understanding of the coronavirus and COVID-19 guidance to prevent transmission

Many participants had a good awareness of the measures in place to stop the spread of coronavirus, and many were able to recall the messaging such as ‘Hands, Face, Space’, ‘Stay at home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’, and the FACTS acronym (Face coverings, avoid crowds, clean hands, two metres, self-isolate). For some, awareness of the COVID-19 guidance did not, however, translate into adopting the relevant behaviours.

While many participants felt that the COVID-19 guidance would be beneficial in stopping the spread of coronavirus, some were sceptical as to the usefulness of various aspects of the COVID-19 guidance introduced, or were mistrustful of its intentions. This tended to be among those who were exposed to unverified news and information sources either regarding how best to stop the spread of coronavirus or the extent of transmissibility of coronavirus.

For example, one participant admitted to being “very confused” about coronavirus. She questioned whether there was actually a virus out there and, despite being aware that there have been many deaths, was unsure how COVID-19 spreads from person to person. While she was able to follow some areas of the COVID-19 guidance (hand washing, use of face masks), she had not adhered to social distancing guidance, and continued to meet friends and family indoors.

Mask wearing was adopted with ease by many but, for a few, the decision to not wear masks was underpinned by a lack of belief in their effectiveness, or perceived harmfulness

All participants interviewed were aware of the COVID-19 guidance to wear a mask or face covering in indoor public settings, with some also spontaneously mentioning public transport. Many also spontaneously mentioned the COVID-19 guidance to limit touching their face as much as possible, to reduce the risk of transmitting coronavirus from the hands to the face.

A few participants either did not wear masks at all, or did not consistently do so, at the time of interview. The reasons provided were varied.

Examples of reasons for not wearing masks

For example, one participant believed that wearing a mask compromised the body’s own ability to fight infection. He was of the view that it was better to use supplements to remain healthy and to maintain a strong immune system, as this would protect him from catching COVID-19 or becoming seriously ill from it. The participant used supplements such as Vitamins C and D, and actively promoted their use (and delivered them) to friends and family. The participant was not concerned about transmitting coronavirus to others, for example when shopping in the supermarket without a mask, as he felt that keeping a distance and not speaking to other shoppers would be sufficient precautions.

Another participant wore a mask in the spring 2020 lockdown but then as time went on he developed the belief that masks did not offer any protection against COVID-19, either to himself or to other people. He gave the example that he was wearing a mask when he caught a cold, and this incident confirmed to him that masks do not protect against viruses. He was also of the view that a strong immune system was important in protecting against COVID-19, and mask wearing offered no protection. This participant did, however, wear a mask when going into his workplace  as it was compulsory when working on site, and he wanted to comply to keep his job. He would also wear a mask when meeting friends who were more conscious of following the COVID-19 guidance, out of respect for them.

Another participant wore a mask in places where they knew it was mandatory and where they were likely to be questioned for not wearing a mask, for example at the supermarket. However, this participant did not wear a mask in settings where he was likely to not be questioned for non-compliance, for example when visiting a small local takeaway, or if he knew someone who worked at the store. This participant’s reluctance to wear a mask stemmed from his belief that mask-wearing was not compulsory for the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he struggled to accept this was something he was later being asked to do. The participant inferred from this that masks were not an effective measure to stop the spread of COVID-19, otherwise it would have been part of the COVID-19 guidance from the start.

A few other participants were of the view that masks did not do anything to stop the spread of coronavirus, yet despite this chose to wear one. For example, one of these felt that they were ineffective, as particles could still get through the holes in the fabric, rendering them useless against the spread of coronavirus. This individual was still fully compliant with mask wearing as ‘it’s the rules’, it was not hard to do, and he was aware others would like him to wear it. He used a disposable mask each time to make sure it was hygienic.

Hand washing guidance was clear

Many participants recalled the COVID-19 guidance to wash hands with soap and water or use hand sanitiser regularly, and there were generally no issues with adopting this behaviour. In addition, many participants recalled the COVID-19 guidance to use hand sanitiser when out and about, or when hand washing facilities were not available.

One participant questioned how often was ‘regularly’ and this remained unclear for her, while a few others felt that their hand washing routine was already of a high standard prior to the pandemic.

Social distancing messaging was understood by many, but not always enacted, particularly with friends and family

Many participants recalled the COVID-19 guidance to keep two metres distance from others, or ‘one metre plus’ with additional measures. One participant recalled a TV advert showing how easily coronavirus spreads from person to person, and the importance of maintaining a distance to help stop the spread. This participant found the advert particularly effective in reinforcing the importance of maintaining a social distance.

Many participants had a good understanding of the COVID-19 guidance against meeting friends and family, and an awareness of how the COVID-19 guidance had changed – for example noting tier-specific changes to COVID-19 guidance around meeting others indoors at Christmas.

A few participants found it confusing or difficult to understand why the COVID-19 guidance to maintain a two metre distance had been reduced to ‘one metre plus.’

Self-isolation

Many participants understood that there was a need to self-isolate if they were to develop symptoms of coronavirus, if they had been notified to do so by the NHS Test and Trace App, or if they had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. There was some uncertainty about the self-isolation period, for example a few participants were not aware that it had been reduced to 10 days from 14 days, while a few others did not understand why it had been reduced, particularly as the reason for the change had not been explained (as they perceived it).

A few other participants were not clear on the specific self-isolation guidance but hadn’t felt a need to look into this, as they had not developed symptoms or had not been notified to self-isolate. They were of the view that they would look into it as and when it became relevant to them.

Knowledge of coronavirus spreading

Many participants interviewed had good knowledge of how coronavirus spreads, and were aware that transmission occurs through close contact with an infected person. There was awareness that an infected person passes on coronavirus through coughing and sneezing, as well as through touching objects (which are then touched by others). There was also some knowledge that coronavirus can become airborne as well as spreading more readily from person to person in enclosed spaces, although the understanding of this was less clear.

A few participants reported awareness of the newer strains of coronavirus, and that these may be more transmissible. This knowledge tended to promote the importance of, and adherence to, the COVID-19 guidance to stop the spread of COVID-19.

A few participants were aware of the R number and how one individual can affect many more.

Information sources tended to incorporate unverified news and information sources

Many participants accessed mainstream news sources, for example the BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, the televised government briefings (both UK and devolved nations), the NHS app, and the gov.uk website.

A few participants reported difficulty in accessing the gov.uk website for information relating to COVID-19, in terms of the language used (‘wordy’) and format (‘long’).

Some participants, however, had also accessed unverified news sources, or those promoting conspiracy theories, for instance those found on social media outlets such as YouTube or passed on through WhatsApp. A few participants found social media platforms and alternative news sources to be more trustworthy in comparison to mainstream news sources.

A few participants were exposed to alternative or non-medically verified views regarding treatment for COVID-19, among their social circle.

“I read the news yes, but I read at least three or four different sources, I Google different issues and read what I find…don’t bring one person out to explain the rules or the situation, bring out a few people, bring out different perspectives.”

Male, age 25 to 29 years, ethnic minority participant, Northern Ireland

For example, one participant did not trust the mainstream news to provide impartial information, out of the belief that they are operating under a government agenda and are therefore not independent. This participant generally relied on social media and information circulated through WhatsApp.

In another example, a participant had been exposed to multiple sources of unverified news and information sources about the coronavirus and she found it hard to decide what was and was not true, and this made her worry. This included a conspiracy theory on Facebook regarding the coronavirus being created by an organisation linked to Pfizer. This source had some impact in persuading the participant that the coronavirus was not an accident, although she “didn’t want to believe it’s true.” She said she tried to dismiss opinions that she thinks sound unreasonable but felt that it nevertheless “goes in a little bit.” As a result of this, the participant tried to limit her exposure to social media sites and chose to watch the BBC and read The Independent paper online, which she felt to be “something more fact-based.”

Another participant said her husband became very unwell with COVID-19 towards the start of the pandemic. Her family encouraged her to try a remedy made from fruit peel and spices, being advertised on YouTube. At the time, the participant was afraid to ring 111 as she had heard stories of people not being seen again (that is, passing away).

A participant from Africa said that the asymptomatic spread was something that she found to be confusing to people from her region of Africa. She felt that Ebola was easier to understand as it was passed on through bodily symptoms. She knew that COVID-19 can be passed on by those with no symptoms, and she felt this may underlie some of the conspiracy theories and misinformation about the virus.

“People believe in different things. Some people believe it’s not happening, some people believe it’s man-made and not a virus unlike Ebola that came to Africa. With Ebola it’s passed by body fluids but with this one [COVID-19] people with no symptoms can still spread it, so we are working in the dark…this [asymptomatic spread] is something that confuses people.”

Female, age 40 to 44 years, ethnic minority participant, Scotland

It should also be noted that social media sites, such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, were also mentioned as information sources by a few participants who were not exposed to, or were not interested in, unverified news and information sources, however.

5. How participants’ work and social environments influence their ability to follow the COVID-19 guidance

Working environment

Many of the participants interviewed reported that their workplaces provided them with the opportunity to comply with the COVID-19 guidance to stop the spread of coronavirus, either through permitting employees to work from home, or through making the workplace ‘Covid-safe’, in the event that employees were not able to work from home.

Examples of working environments affecting participants’ ability to follow the COVID-19 guidance

One participant was prioritised among her colleagues for home working, as she had an autoimmune disorder. Working from home meant that she could continue to carry out her job, as well as comply with the COVID-19 guidance to shield, as she had an underlying health condition.

Another participant found his employer to be very helpful and sympathetic about his need to work from home, to keep his vulnerable parents safe from the coronavirus. He was provided with the opportunity to work from home upon his request. His employer made a work laptop available for him, and he was kept on full time pay in the weeks that it took the laptop to arrive (that is, a period when he was at home but could not do any work).

A maintenance worker reported that his workplace was the environment where he complied most fully with the COVID-19 guidance, as it provided the most opportunity to do so. His role involved cleaning and he was used to wearing PPE and a mask, which made him feel safe from the risk of catching the coronavirus.

A participant who volunteered full time felt that the measures her organisation had put in place had allowed her to be fully compliant with the COVID-19 guidance. She had been provided with masks and hand sanitiser for herself, as well as enough to share with the people she supported. As a result of being provided with the resources to ensure her own safety, she also felt comfortable in enforcing social distancing guidance in her work, for example, when dropping off food parcels in a way that maintained distance from the recipient.

A participant who was working as a cleaner reported that her employer had taken several measures to keep her safe when working, for example modifying her working hours so that she would start work once her workplace was closed to the public, therefore reducing the number of people she came into contact with at work. Her employer insisted she and the other cleaner wear masks and gloves, as well as being provided with different cleaning products. She was also advised on cleaning more stringently, for example door handles and other touch points.

These positive experiences contrasted with those of other  participants. For example, a few participants who worked in supermarkets found that their workplace did not provide them with the opportunity to comply with the COVID-19 guidance. They found that it was difficult to maintain a distance from customers in store, for example they felt there was little they could do when elderly customers came up close to them or made physical contact to get their attention. One of the participants found his employer to be hypocritical, as while they were told to keep a distance from customers to comply with the COVID-19 guidance, they were also told to speed up their work (picking orders) to fulfil the orders more quickly.

Similarly, a driver was aware that many of his colleagues had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and or were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. He had seen staff go home ill, and was of the view that management were not actively sharing information about this, for example whether he had been in close contact with a colleague who had subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. The participant felt that management were reluctant to be transparent with employees, out of fear that staff would take time off should they be informed they were in close contact with a colleague who had tested positive for COVID-19.

Social environment

The participants interviewed reported a mixed experience of their social environment, with some participants having social environments supportive of the COVID-19 guidance, whereas other participants had individuals in their social environment who were not supportive of various aspects of the COVID-19 guidance, or who questioned the seriousness of coronavirus. Not everyone who had unsupportive individuals in their social environment were influenced by them, however.

Examples of supportive individuals included partners as well as wider family who were compliant with the COVID-19 guidance and encouraged compliance on the part of the participant.

“My partner keeps me alert. She is very strict and encourages me to do my bit to save lives. She’s more hands on than me and is constantly onto it [keeping up to date with the guidance].”

Male, age 45 to 49 years, ethnic minority participant, Wales

Another participant mentioned that they admired their neighbours who work for the NHS and respected the work they did. He viewed his neighbours as “team players” and was motivated by them to follow the COVID-19 guidance.

A few other participants reported that they had people in their social environments who were not supportive of the COVID-19 guidance. For example, one woman’s sports trainer did not wear masks and was of the view that you should see “whoever you want and whenever you want”, irrespective of the social distancing guidance. For this participant, her trainer’s views did not hold any weight in shaping her own behaviour. She had many other positive factors in her life that enabled her to comply with the COVID-19 guidance, for example clear awareness of virus transmission and current COVID-19 guidance, a motivation to protect those more vulnerable, and a family environment supportive of the COVID-19 guidance.

One participant felt that her friend’s non-compliance could have potentially impacted her own health. The participant had met up with her friend (who did not believe that COVID-19 exists), however her friend failed to inform her that she had flu-like symptoms. The participant was very upset at hearing this after they had met up. After having a discussion with her friend, the participant was able to explain that it was very important to her that she complied with the COVID-19 guidance, and the friend agreed to tell her if she was feeling ill at all before meeting in future.

Similarly, another participant had people in her social circle who were doubtful as to the extent of the pandemic and did not follow the COVID-19 guidance. As a result of this, she chose not to meet up with these friends as she was aware they were not complying, and they therefore had a greater chance of being exposed to coronavirus.

“I try to avoid meeting up with my friends. Some people don’t care, they are still going out and getting together. Some people still doubt the virus, they believe it is not real. They think it’s all a set-up, a conspiracy. They believe seeing is believing, maybe they don’t know anyone close who has died of the virus, so they say it’s nothing. I have to follow the guidelines.”

Female, age 40 to 44 years, ethnic minority participant, Scotland

Role of public services and amenities in supporting compliance with the COVID-19 guidance

A few  participants felt that public services and amenities had supported them to follow the COVID-19 guidance, whereas others felt that these services and amenities had made it harder to do so.

For example, one participant who regularly visited restaurants and cinemas, noted that they were enforcing mask wearing and social distancing (during the times they were open). The participant found this encouraging, as it enabled him to comply with the COVID-19 guidance while still being able to visit places he enjoyed. Another participant caring for his elderly father had to take him to hospital for an appointment. The participant was reassured by the measures in place to ensure safety, such as temperature checks, and automatic doors to avoid touchpoints, as well as free parking so that he didn’t have to touch any machines to pay for a ticket. The participant reflected that “it is easier to keep safe when there are structures in place” and found this to be the case in the hospital.

On the other hand, one participant went abroad over the summer on holiday and was aware he had to fill out a form declaring he had been away and had to self-isolate on return to the UK. The participant started to fill out the form on the plane, but nobody collected it at passport control upon arrival, so he didn’t bother submitting it and did not self-isolate. The fact that the participant was able to leave the airport without submitting the form led him to perceive the requirement to self-isolate was not being taken seriously. Upon his return to the UK, the participant did not self-isolate, and although he continued to work from home, he also continued to go to the supermarket.

“Because I was working from home I did not have to self-isolate from people at work but we did continue to go [the supermarket] and places like that so that was naughty I guess…no one asked for it [the form]…so we thought it was a bit of a joke and not serious because there is no mandate to show you have filled in that information.”

Male, age 40 to 44 years, ethnic minority participant, England

6. Participants’ willingness and motivation to follow COVID-19 guidance

Factors that motivate compliance with the COVID-19 guidance

Participants cited several key motivators that supported their compliance with the COVID-19 guidance. These included: to benefit wider society including those more vulnerable; to protect oneself and family, to avoid others’ judgement; and the wish to return to a normal life and resume the activities they enjoy.

Greater good of society

There was a sense among many participants that adherence to the COVID-19 guidance was a way for them to ‘do their bit’ for the greater good of society, including the protection of more vulnerable individuals, who would be more susceptible to serious illness.

“The guilt if anyone else gets it from you and then passes away…almost like a death on your hands.”

Male, age 25 to 29 years, ethnic minority participant, Scotland

A few participants working in a support worker role also felt it was important to explain to the people they support the importance of adhering to the COVID-19 guidance, so that they can do their bit as well.

A mother interviewed felt that it was important for her to comply with the COVID-19 guidance to teach her children an important lesson about behaving in helpful ways, as well as teaching them ‘obedience.’

A few participants who did not believe that masks offer any protection, either to themselves or to others, felt it was important they continue to wear masks around others who would feel reassured by them wearing it.

Protection of self and family

The desire to protect oneself and family members came through as a motivation to adhere to the COVID-19 guidance among some  participants. There was a sense that following the COVID-19 guidance was a form of self-protection against coronavirus, as well as for their loved ones. Among participants who were vulnerable or who had a vulnerable member in their household or support bubble, there was an awareness that this makes them particularly susceptible to becoming seriously ill with COVID-19. This awareness heightened their motivation to comply with the COVID-19 guidance, as a way of keeping themselves or their loved ones safe.

Avoidance of others’ judgement

A few participants were motivated to comply with the COVID-19 guidance out of a fear of judgement of others, should they be seen to not be adhering to the COVID-19 guidance. This was particularly the case with mask-wearing.

“I am wearing a mask and gloves not just for my own safety but because I know if I go [to a shop] I won’t be let in and I will be looked on in a certain way…you have to respect that some people have been affected and lost people…I am mindful of that.”

Male, age 40 to 44 years, ethnic minority participant, England

Wish to return to normal life

The wish to return to a normal life was mentioned as a motivation for following the COVID-19 guidance by a few participants. These participants tended to have hope and optimism for their future, and looked forward to better days beyond COVID-19 and the restrictions it has brought about.

Factors that discourage adherence to the COVID-19 guidance

Participants identified several factors that acted as demotivators to compliance with the COVID-19 guidance. While these factors were demotivating, they did not always translate into non-compliance. These factors included: exposure to unverified news and information sources; the feeling of having made sacrifices, particularly with regards to social life; witnessing others’ non-compliance (for example family and friends, members of the public and people in the public eye); and a perceived lack of punishment of those disregarding the rules.

Unverified news and information sources

While many participants interviewed accessed mainstream news outlets and had broadly compliance-supportive social environments, some were exposed to unverified news and information sources about coronavirus that went against COVID-19 guidance and messaging. This tended to seed doubts in their mind relating to the facts of the coronavirus and acted as a demotivator to compliance.

For example, one participant who was largely compliant with the COVID-19 guidance, said that they sometimes heard stories that the pandemic could be ‘fake’ and that the numbers of people affected have been manipulated. Exposure to these views demotivated the participant to comply as it undermined the messages they were hearing from the government.

Another participant said they were not sure whether the pandemic was true or “all a lie”, and again this undermined his compliance with, for example, mask wearing and social distancing from friends and family.

Similarly, a woman interviewed held the belief that the government had been lying about the scale of the number of people affected by coronavirus, and therefore to her mind “there is no point in complying.” This participant said that despite the news reports of hospitals being impacted by the influx of seriously ill COVID-19 patients, she had not seen any evidence of it, so it “was hard for me to grasp what was so bad.” This participant also referenced the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK in summer 2020, and that some commentators said the protests would lead to a second wave of cases at the time. The participant said that as this did not happen, she took it as another piece of evidence that the government were lying about the scale and extent of the pandemic.

Overall, even when individuals were critically weighing up conspiracy theories that they had been exposed to, they sometimes still took on board a more sceptical attitude to the severity of the pandemic, or the veracity of the COVID-19 guidance.

The feeling of having made sacrifices, particularly with regards to social life, was a demotivator

Some participants interviewed felt that they had made sacrifices in their own life to stop the spread of the coronavirus. There was a tendency for some participants to view these sacrifices positively, in that they had sacrificed some of their own wants (for example to meet up with friends), to protect the health and lives of others, and this was felt to be worth the sacrifice.

There were a few participants however who felt that the sacrifices they had made allowed them to ‘bend the rules’ in following some areas of the COVID-19 guidance. For example, at the time of interview one participant had planned to meet his family indoors for Christmas regardless of any rules in place at the time, as he felt he had made sacrifices to his social life throughout the pandemic.

“I admit that I and others I know do bend the rules because it [the pandemic] has been going on for too long. I don’t know what the rules are, but I don’t care, I will spend Christmas with the family all in one house. It is what it is.”

Male, age 40 to 44 years, ethnic minority participant, England

Another participant struggled with mask wearing as it made her feel like she was “suffocating”, but she persisted as she felt “compelled” to wear it. This sense of a sacrifice, having to do something she did not want to,  was used as part-justification for non-compliance with the social distancing guidance, as she continued to visit her friend’s house.

Witnessing others’ non-compliance was a demotivator

A few participants mentioned that they found other people’s non-adherence to the social distancing guidance de-motivating, especially since they had been (largely) following the social distancing guidance themselves, and felt they had made sacrifices in not seeing friends and family. For example, one participant mentioned that seeing others not socially-distance in the supermarket made him feel that ‘not everyone is pulling their weight’, giving rise to frustration and a feeling of ‘then why should I?’ Despite these feelings, this participant continued to adhere to the COVID-19 guidance as he felt it was for the greater good and something he ‘should be doing.’

“Like when you see an older person not move out of the way, you feel disheartened and demotivated, like everyone is not pulling their weight…it does feel frustrating and makes you think, ‘well everyone else isn’t doing it, what impact am I really having?’ But I think, when I do it, I should.”

Male, age 35 to 39 years, ethnic minority participant, Scotland

A few participants found it demotivating to hear of other people mixing in large groups, such as at parties, rallies and protests.

A few participants mentioned that the alleged breach of lockdown rules by people in the public eye was a demotivator to following the COVID-19 guidance, particularly as there were no real repercussions. This encouraged one participant to play football in the park with friends, which was against the COVID-19 guidance at the time of the interview.

Perceived lack of punishment of those disregarding the rules

A few participants were of the view that enforcement of the rules should be stricter and that too many people were ‘getting away’ with non-adherence to the COVID-19 guidance. This was experienced as de-motivating by those who perceived themselves to be following the COVID-19 guidance closely.

“They should be more strict with the rules, they should go up to people and fine them if they are breaking the rules, or if a business is. If they had police out telling you not to do something and punishing you if you do something wrong, a lot more people would follow the rules.”

Male, age 25 to 29 years, ethnic minority participant, Northern Ireland

7. Other influences

While many participants listened to scientific experts, there was some scepticism about their COVID-19 guidance and some mistrust as to their benevolence. There was a sense that the scientific experts working on the pandemic were perhaps speaking from a political platform and were influenced by the media, therefore their views were experienced as not being independent and trustworthy.

Other participants felt that scientific experts were providing the public with ‘selected information’ regarding the pandemic and were not telling the full story. For example, one participant gave the example of not being provided with the death rate of regular winter flu, in comparison to the death rate from COVID-19. This lack of trust led the participant to take what scientific experts say with “a pinch of salt”, that is, to view their opinions with scepticism.

“When I hear scientific experts talking about something, I am intrigued and curious as to what they have to say, but in recent times I have become more sceptical about their findings so I query whether there is any motive behind the unveiling of their information.”

Male, age 35 39 years, ethnic minority participant, Scotland

8. Data sources and quality

More detailed quality and methodology information on strengths, limitations, appropriate uses, and how the data were gathered is available in the Compliance with coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance across the UK QMI report.

9. Related links

Coronavirus and compliance with guidance across the UK: April 2021

Bulletin | Released 12 April 2021

Summarising the attitudes and behaviours of different social groups in relation to coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance in the UK.