The attitudes and behaviours of high income participants during the pandemic

1. Main findings

  • Many high income participants were working from home and adaptation to life during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had been successful, ranging from changing working habits to exercise routines. Loss of social contact with friends and family was most keenly felt at weekends.
  • High income participants had good opportunities to follow the coronavirus (COVID-19) government guidance. For many, home working made it straightforward to comply; they usually had sufficient space and resources, although some were juggling childcare responsibilities. Socially, the main challenges to compliance were if relatives or close friends were not complying.
  • There were high levels of understanding of the COVID-19 guidance, informed by mainstream sources of information, with good awareness of the underlying scientific rationale. Many participants demonstrated high levels of compliance with mask wearing, handwashing and sanitising and self-isolating when required; instances of non-compliance with these measures were rarely reported.
  • Some high income participants broke social mixing and social distancing COVID-19 guidance to meet other people, usually family and friends (for example, travelling further than allowed, or not keeping two metres apart in private gardens) and more so at weekends. They justified this on the grounds that either they or a member of their family required support with childcare or to maintain their mental wellbeing.
  • A few participants also justified breaching the COVID-19 guidance in that they judged the activity to be low risk. Sometimes they implied their non-compliant behaviour was ‘offset’ with compliant behaviour in other areas, or suggested they had good reasons for ignoring the COVID-19 guidance; despite seeming clear about what they should be doing to comply.
  • The main motivators to comply were a desire to return to normal life, protecting family members (and sometimes themselves) and protecting vulnerable members of society. The main demotivators were a perception that they were justified in breaking the guidance or were minimising risk, not feeling vulnerable to coronavirus, concern for negative mental wellbeing impacts, perceived frequent changes to the guidance or lack of belief in their effectiveness and witnessing non-compliant behaviour by others in their area or high-profile figures.

A full profile of the high income 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 were similar to before except spent at home, which suited some but not all

Many high income participants worked full time and with a few exceptions this had been the case throughout the pandemic. Some had been home workers before the pandemic too. The main differences were a lack of a commute and having to adapt to servicing customers virtually rather than face-to-face. Many participants reported that they had a suitable workspace at home, in many cases they were able to have their own office, and a few also stated that this would be their preference after the pandemic. This was either because they would like to lose their commute altogether or that they liked being able to keep on top of housework during the day, which left evenings completely clear. One participant was still able to go into the office once per week, which he looked forward to.

Some participants disliked working from home. For one participant it provided added pressure and they noted that deadlines were harder without being able to take breaks by talking to other people or having a change of scenery. For a few others, working from home meant they were working longer hours because they found that it was easy for working life to bleed into home life when they both exist in the same space. A few were juggling work and home-schooling during lockdown periods and this put pressure on their physical space and work time.

“Every day is much the same – we don’t go out… we just work our way through from one meal to the next.”

Female, age 65 to 69 years, high income participant, Scotland

Many of the key workers interviewed (carers, teachers and NHS staff) reported that their working life was more stressful than before due to dealing with additional COVID-19 workload and stresses, staff absence through illness (in the NHS) and having to teach remotely.

Evenings were spent at home, which felt restrictive for some

Many participants tended to spend evenings at home with their partner. The most common activities were watching television or having Zoom calls with friends or family, although a few admitted that the novelty of social Zoom calls had worn off.

While these behaviours were not dissimilar to those performed before the pandemic, there were many references to missing pre-pandemic occasional socialising on weekday evenings, such as meeting friends, having meals, going to the pub, going to comedy shows. Not being able to do this for long periods of time was having a negative effect on some participants’ moods.

Those with regular fitness regimes were missing these and some made changes to try and still get exercise during the week. Some were using home gyms instead of going to classes at gyms or yoga studios, some had instigated regular, even daily, walks as a substitute for other forms of exercise, while others had replaced playing sport with watching it on television.

Support bubbles were formed for various reasons

Some participants reported they had formed support bubbles. A few participants formed a support bubble to  either  provide or make use of childcare, while a few others supported a vulnerable elderly parent or parent-in-law. One participant formed a support bubble with their partner  who lived in a different home. A middle-aged couple formed a support bubble with their adult son, while an older widow who was bereaved during the pandemic, had recently formed a support bubble with a friend who was also living alone.

A few had made sacrifices to protect vulnerable relatives

A few participants mentioned that they had been very vigilant, going over and above the COVID-19 guidance on social distancing to protect vulnerable family members. These included a terminally ill spouse; an elderly aunt undergoing cancer treatment (whom the participant was supporting but not living with); and an elderly father with whom the participant was in a support bubble. These participants had been keeping their household protocols very strict throughout the pandemic, for example not seeing anyone else outside their household, as far as possible, to minimise the risk of catching COVID-19 themselves and passing it on to their vulnerable relative.

Weekends were felt to be most affected by restrictions

Many participants experienced a loss of social activity at weekends. The impact of this ranged from being seen as an annoyance, to a concern for one’s own mental health. For a few participants it also restricted childcare options, causing life to feel very restricted, which one participant described as “like Groundhog Day.”

“I find it really tough, working from home is comfortable but it’s hard having no real social contact, it’s not something I can see lasting for an extended period of time. If we are still in this position for another six or nine months, it would be a real battle for me.”

Male, age 45 to 49 years, high income participant, England

Many participants reported that they were missing seeing family and friends, and some were missing socialising in restaurants, pubs or bars.

A few participants had missed visiting their holiday home which they had done regularly prior to COVID-19. A few other participants missed being able to play golf, dance, or watch live music. Some would meet for socially distanced walks where viable.

A few participants said they had missed not being able to travel abroad for holidays or to visit friends and family who lived abroad, including young grandchildren.

Some guidance was broken at weekends because it felt low risk

A few participants felt they could continue their weekend activities with a low level of risk, despite the COVID-19 guidance to not meet others socially or to travel. For one, this involved having friends over to their home for drinks, which she felt comfortable doing because she had taken precautions like opening windows and sitting apart. Another participant drove a long distance to see his son. He did this less than he did before the pandemic but felt that he was only ‘bending’ the COVID-19 guidance, which was offset by being compliant in other areas.  He also felt his actions were not comparable with more extreme COVID-19 guidance contraventions such as people going away hiking for the weekend. Another participant travelled between tiers to play golf when clubs closed in his own tier, feeling that as one person doing a remote activity, he was unlikely to infect anyone.

3. Behaviour in relation to COVID-19

Many participants reported strong adherence to mask wearing and hand washing. Many  had also reduced the number of people that they saw, although there were examples of breaking the COVID-19 guidance in this regard (either by forming support bubbles that were larger than permitted within the guidance or by continuing to socialise). Many had also maintained a social distance from others when in work or in public, but there were also admissions from a few that they did not keep the recommended distance when spending time with friends or family outside of their support bubble.

There were also a few cases in which participants needed to self-isolate as a result of catching COVID-19. These periods of self-isolation were all completed within the appropriate COVID-19 guidance.

Wearing a mask

Many participants reported wearing masks as advised when in enclosed spaces such as shops. Many participants had taken steps to build mask wearing into their daily routine such as having them in their pocket before leaving the house and keeping a mask in the car.

There were a few comments on the discomfort masks can cause but this was never used as an excuse not to wear one. One teacher reported also wearing a mask when walking down school corridors, despite not being advised to. A few participants said they had worn masks when out of the home since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. One of these participants had spent a year living abroad already adopted mask wearing as a sensible practice when commuting during their time there.

A few participants reported not wearing a mask. One  suffered with panic attacks and could not cope with wearing it as it induced anxiety. Nevertheless, more recently with help from her psychologist the participant had addressed this issue and had begun to wear one. Another participant had been defiant in not wearing a mask, earlier in the pandemic. He had deliberately chosen to go into shops that would not enforce wearing one, but more recently had changed his behaviour. This behavioural change reflected a shift in attitude towards how much he felt he had a “social responsibility” to others, which he had felt had been overstated at the start of the pandemic but was now something he agreed with.

In addition to wearing masks, a few participants also mentioned that they had been making conscious efforts to touch their faces less frequently in an attempt to reduce transmission. One was working as a carer in people’s homes and thought accidentally touching her face was probably the most likely way she could catch coronavirus, as she was following the COVID-19 guidance.

A few participants also reported wearing gloves, for example, when going to the Post Office, unpacking items delivered or when grocery shopping. One said that they no longer did so after having learned from a friend who is a nurse, that they can cause coronavirus to transmit more easily while wearing them, especially in supermarkets.

Handwashing and sanitising

Many participants reported that they regularly washing their hands and this was given as an unprompted example of behaviour they had been doing to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus. Participants reported a range of hand washing behaviours, from a simple mention of regular handwashing to examples of washing after touching a variety of different things, such as shopping, post, deliveries, bannisters or door handles. A few  participants admitted their adherence to regular hand washing had reduced over time, and lessened more during lockdowns when not really going out. On the other hand, a few participants were extremely diligent in their hand washing procedures and proud of their thoroughness.

There were also some mentions of regular hand sanitiser use although in a few cases this was only mentioned when prompted. As with hand washing it was adhered to, to differing degrees. For some participants who used hand sanitiser, they tended to use it at supermarkets or when leaving or entering the house, but for a few others all shopping, deliveries, post and surfaces in the house were wiped down on a regular basis. One participant also made sure to use anti-bacterial spray on all cutlery and items that people within her support bubble may have come into contact with. Another kept separate items for use by visitors to the home.

Social distancing

Many participants reported that they adhered to social distancing when in public. A few participants found that on occasion this could be difficult in supermarkets where other people would not respect personal boundaries. One participant reported that the shops seemed as busy as they had been before the pandemic and as a result it simply was not possible to keep two metres away from everybody at all times. To counteract this, there were a few accounts of going to smaller shops with fewer people or shopping more infrequently, at less popular times of day or shopping online instead.

A few participants reported assessing how busy exercise facilities were, before deciding whether or not to continue exercising there. One went back to her swimming pool when restrictions eased but found people got too close to her and it was too busy. She felt uncomfortable so decided not to go back. Another had a similar experience at his gym, he tried going back once but did not feel safe enough to do so again.

While many participants strived to socially distance when in public, there were some participants who said they did not always keep the required distance with people that they know. For a few, this was because they trusted their friends and therefore did not feel that they were at risk of infection. Others were parents and felt that, as their children had been freely mixing with other children as well as the children’s parents, they were already exposed. One participant also felt that, if it was permissible to work inside with people, then seeing friends outside within two metres was no more of a risk, provided they did not hug.

One participant recounted inviting a friend and her four children, plus one child’s girlfriend to a gathering in the garden, when the COVID-19 guidance allowed her to do so. The visiting family then tested positive for COVID-19, so they had to self-isolate.

“They all got very drunk and as a bunch of late teens / early twenties they were like animals let out of the zoo. They were [taking photos for social media] and dancing together and hugging.”

Female, age 45 to 49 years, high income participant, Wales

Another example of non-compliance was driving out of the local area, which was reported by a few participants. A participant said in early January they drove to take the dog for a walk and had not realised that the restrictions had increased and that they were breaking the COVID-19 guidance by doing so. Nevertheless, this participant felt that she would do this again, if where she was going would mean she would pass fewer people than she would walking in her own neighbourhood.

Meeting with others

Many participants curbed their socialising and saw much less of friends and family so as to not catch coronavirus, nor risk its spread. There were, however, some exceptions where COVID-19 guidance was broken. In a few cases this was participants seeing friends because they assessed the risk and did not think it was very great; they felt that their friends were unlikely to have COVID-19 because they take precautions. For a few others, the decision was made because they felt that it was necessary to form a support bubble with more people or households than strictly allowed.

One participant was concerned that her teenage son’s mental wellbeing was suffering and so she allowed his girlfriend to visit in the garden. This participant was anxious the whole time that her son’s girlfriend was there and afterwards kept washing her hands and washing all the blankets they had used in the garden.

Another participant was a grandparent, and wanted to be able to offer support to both her children and her two sets of grandchildren. This meant forming a support bubble with too many households. Similarly, another participant felt that she needed to support her elderly mother-in-law but also her son who lived alone, and so made a conscious decision to visit both and have them visit her.


The few participants who reported having caught COVID-19 and needed to isolate, did so and mentioned no problems with following the self-isolation COVID-19 guidance.

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

Many high income 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’ and the FACTS acronym.

For some participants, awareness of the COVID-19 guidance around social distancing did not translate to compliant behaviour, particularly with friends and family. Overall, these participants seemed confident in making their own judgment calls to behave outside of the official COVID-19 guidance.

Mask wearing

Many participants were aware of the COVID-19 guidance to wear a mask or face covering in enclosed public spaces. Many participants were supportive of the guidance to wear masks and felt that they contributed to helping stop the spread of coronavirus.

“It is just the first thing I do straight away and it amazes me still how many people don’t bother wearing a mask … the evidence seems to be that wearing a mask prevents you from catching COVID-19 or passing it on. Unfortunately for us [in the UK] that seemed to be late news.”

Male, age 35 to 39 years, high income participant, England

A few participants did not like the feeling of wearing a mask and found them uncomfortable. Despite this they persevered, as they felt it was the ‘right thing to do’ to help stop the spread of coronavirus. However, there were a few instances of non-compliance despite being aware of the COVID-19 guidance. For example, one participant admitted to sometimes pulling his mask down to get cooler air on his face or when travelling on a bus if no one else was there.

Hand washing

Many participants were aware of the COVID-19 guidance to wash hands and or sanitise regularly throughout the day and were able to adhere to this guidance with ease.

There were a few participants who, although aware of the COVID-19 guidance to wash hands or sanitise regularly, did not do so more than usual. They perceived that they had a lower risk of becoming ill with COVID-19 or felt more distant from it. This included one participant who had not known anybody in his social environment who had caught coronavirus and another who perceived themselves as fit and healthy.

Social distancing

Many participants had a good awareness of the COVID-19 guidance to maintain social distancing from others, with many recalling the two metre or ‘one metre plus other measures’ distancing advice. Participants also recalled the previous iterations of the COVID-19 guidance when meeting friends and family, for example the ‘rule of six’ and no meeting indoors.

One participant had difficulty understanding this guidance, for example whether she was included in the ‘rule of six’, and whether there was a household limit within the rule of six.

“Avoid meeting inside or outside with more than six people…does that include myself? Does that include my household? Is it 2 from my household + 4 or + another 6? I’m not sure how to interpret that at all.”

Female, age 30-34 years, high income participant, Northern Ireland

A few participants remarked that they thought COVID-19 guidance allowing people to go to work, school or university, seemed inconsistent with the rule that they could only interact with one adult from another household outside (at the time of interview).

A participant in Wales said she found it confusing when English and Welsh COVID-19 guidance differed, as she looked at UK-wide media as a source of information. She had not realised when England went into the early 2021 lockdown, that Wales were actually already in lockdown for a week before and she had therefore broken the Welsh COVID-19 guidance by driving for a day out with her family during that week.

For some participants, awareness of the social distancing COVID-19 guidance did not translate into the relevant behaviour. Some chose not to adhere to the COVID-19 guidance; this was mainly due to the need to provide care to families, as well as feeling negative mental wellbeing impacts of social distancing and avoiding social mixing. These participants seemed confident in making their own judgment calls to behave outside of the official COVID-19 guidance.


Many participants had a good understanding of the need to self-isolate should they develop symptoms of COVID-19, or in the event they were notified to do so by NHS Track and Trace. A few participants had self-isolated due to developing symptoms and subsequently tested positive. They were able to isolate with ease at home.

For a few participants, there was confusion over the self-isolation period, whether it was 14 or 10 days, and this was identified as an area of the COVID-19 guidance that could benefit from further clarification. One participant who was unsure of the self-isolation period and had come into contact with someone who had tested positive, decided to isolate for 14 days despite not knowing for sure whether the self-isolation period was 10 or 14 days. She felt it was safer to isolate for the longer period and was happy to do so.

One compliant participant found it frustrating when others were less compliant, and recounted how a friend caught COVID-19 from her workplace. One of her friend’s colleagues chose not to self-isolate and instead travelled abroad to visit family, where he subsequently passed COVID-19 onto them.

Knowledge of virus spreading

Overall, many participants had a good knowledge of how COVID-19 spreads from person to person. Many participants mentioned that an infected person could spread coronavirus through breathing and talking, as well as through touching surfaces. There was also some awareness that the coronavirus spreads more easily indoors through the building up of viral load.

A few participants felt their knowledge was very limited. Despite this they knew the basics that COVID-19 spreads through close contact with an infected person or infected surfaces.

Information sources

Many participants engaged with mainstream information sources, such as UK government and devolved nations’ news briefings, the GOV.UK and NHS websites, the BBC (national or local TV news or the website) and Sky News. A few participants recalled government advertisements of the key messaging, and this helped to reinforce the COVID-19 guidance and made it easier to remember.

A few participants also mentioned doctors with a television or social media presence as well as influencer medical professionals, as a source of information.

A few participants said they had made a conscious decision to stop watching the news on television as it was affecting their mood or mental wellbeing negatively.

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

Many participants’ working environments supported compliance with the COVID-19 guidance, particularly when working from home, but this was not always the case for those who continued to work from their workplaces. Among participants’ social environments, too, there was some exposure to others’ non-compliance with social distancing.

Work environment

Many participants’ work environments generally supported their compliance with the COVID-19 guidance, as many were able to work from home.

The few who went out to work in business settings had mixed experiences.

Examples of participants’ work environments influencing their ability to follow the COVID-19 guidance

A participant who worked in a manufacturing company had to travel into the office once per week and was feeling positive and fortunate about his work environment. He described how he had a small, closely knit, optimistic team who were all proactive in working together to minimise the risk of catching coronavirus. They wrote a company handbook on action to take and policies to put in place to protect themselves and their immediate families. This involved sanitising the kitchen after use and having Zoom meetings with each other even if they were metres away from each other in the office.

There were a few health and social care workers interviewed who went out to work in hospital settings or in people’s homes, who were fully aware of the COVID-19 guidance they had to follow to protect themselves and patients. A nurse said she took her breaks at work alone rather than in the staff rooms for greater social distancing from others. Another healthcare worker said she was exposed to coronavirus on a daily basis at the hospital so was very wary of protecting others and minimised all contact with others outside of work. Both were fully aware they were ‘on the frontline.’

However, a few keyworkers who were working from their workplaces (for example teachers, healthcare workers, Health & Safety workers), reported that their working environments did not provide them the opportunity to follow the COVID-19 guidance, and this tended to be around social distancing. One participant found that members of the public often come up to her when she was doing site visits, sometimes removing their mask when speaking to her or standing too close. The participant felt uncomfortable when this happened and tried to reduce her visits to busy sites. She felt comfortable telling people to maintain social distancing, or to keep their mask on when speaking to her, and this was generally respected. A school teacher found her work environment particularly challenging. She found it difficult to maintain social distancing in a crowded school environment, and to promote adherence to the COVID-19 guidance. She described the school where she works as being in a very middle-class area where everyone was “very relaxed about everything” and with a school ethos that was equally as relaxed, so enforcing restrictions upon the children was met with some resistance, due to the school culture.

“Trying to get 1,800 kids to wear a mask and walk on the right side of the school and go in the right building and, you know, getting kids to care about it is difficult because, you know, why would they? They’re not seeing the long term and I understand that… they are a bit like ‘whatever!’”

Female, age 35 to 39 years, high income participant, England

One participant who ran a business believed some of her employees, if told to isolate, would stay home [initially] and, if no symptoms became apparent, return to work, thereby putting other staff at risk.

“Some think it’s ok to isolate and if there’s no symptoms return to work.”

Female, age 45 to 49, high income participant, England

A carer who worked in people’s homes said she had to follow strict protocols at work, but she would compromise slightly when a client needed comfort; she would reach out and rub their shoulder or stop to listen more.

Social environment

Participants reported a mixed social environment, with some reporting family and friends to be supportive and encouraging of compliance with the COVID-19 guidance. For example, a participant’s partner kept on top of buying sanitiser and masks, to ensure that they were available for the household and to make compliance easier.

For some other participants, significant individuals in their social environments did not promote adherence to the COVID-19 guidance, particularly around social distancing. The knowledge that family and friends were finding it difficult to maintain social distancing COVID-19 guidance, motivated some participants to break this guidance themselves, to support their friend or family member’s wellbeing. For example, one participant met a friend who lives alone and gave her a hug because she was lonely. Another (who was generally very compliant) met her son’s daughter for a socially distanced walk, when it was not permissible to do so, deciding to do it to check on her mental wellbeing, as she had been on her own.

“When you talk to other people, you realise that it’s [non-adherence to social distancing guidance] not uncommon, it’s hard when we have two people we love living alone, you have to find a way around it, everyone has a way to flaunt the law.”

Female, age 40 to 44 years, high income participant, England

To alleviate these pressures, one participant met her friends in her home. She felt she took a calculated risk and was able to make it as safe as possible by disinfecting after her friends had visited, and by protecting her mother by not letting her visit for a few days. This participant complied with other aspects of the COVID-19 guidance, such as hand washing, including additional hygiene measures such as frequently disinfecting door handles and other touchpoints within the home, as well as wearing a mask.

Another participant recounted how she was in a support bubble to assist an elderly relative and she has her round for dinner regularly. However, another younger relative has also come round to her house for dinner a few times, which they were aware was breaching the COVID-19 guidance. The younger relative also brings her partner, which annoys the participant and has been a source of arguments. This was because she felt she can assess the level of risk associated with her friends but does not know her younger relative’s partner as well, which she sees as a risk to herself and her elderly relative.

“Nobody has the energy to argue any more. We just kind of let it happen. We know that [my younger relative] is not going to stop [coming over with her partner].”

Female, age 25 to 29 years, high income participant, England

Comfortable lifestyles make adherence easier

Many participants reported that they had a comfortable and spacious home, which would support their self-isolation, should they develop symptoms and or be notified of the need to self-isolate by NHS Track and Trace. They also tended to have a dedicated workspace or office, which promoted working from home. Many also had access to gardens, with some having access to nearby countryside for exercise.

“We are very lucky, we have the house and garden, and the kids have plenty of toys. We are healthy.”

Male, age 40 to 44 years, high income participant, Northern Ireland

Role of public services or amenities in supporting compliance with the guidance

A few participants felt that amenities such as supermarkets, as well as hospitality venues such as restaurants and cafés, did not have sufficient measures in place to stop the spread of coronavirus. For example, a participant who prior to the pandemic enjoyed socialising and meeting friends in restaurants, no longer felt comfortable to dine out during earlier phases of the pandemic as she felt the one metre rule between tables of unrelated households was not sufficient. In addition, she did not understand why the COVID-19 guidance at the time permitted meeting friends and family in a restaurant but not in her home, as she was of the view that her own home would be safer.

Similarly, a few others found that supermarkets were less stringent with enforcing social distancing guidance at the time of interview (Dec 2020 – Jan 2021), compared with earlier in the pandemic. For example, a participant living in a rural area found it difficult to maintain a social distance in his local shops as the owners did not limit numbers coming in; or have markings on the floor to encourage social distancing or one-way flows of people. He preferred to use delivery services or click and collect for these reasons. A few other participants reported that some supermarket chains were, in their opinion, stricter in adhering to social distancing guidance than others; and this might impact their brand loyalty. As a result of crowded shops, a few participants had reduced the frequency of their grocery shopping or switched to click and collect or home deliveries.

“The supermarkets have almost gone, they just let more people in, why are there no queues outside anymore? It’s something that is now almost forgotten.”

Male, age 35 to 39 years, high income participant, England

One very compliant participant could not understand why everyone did not sanitise their hands on entry to supermarkets since the advice has been “rammed down our throats.” He did not know whether people were ignoring the sanitiser due to ignorance or lack of respect. In contrast, another participant had noticed some shops had sanitising stations and some did not. This inconsistency made her question whether it really mattered and she felt cleaning the trolley and sanitising her hands was tedious so sometimes she would look at the cleaning stations but just walk by them.

One participant’s wife worked in a supermarket and had encountered abusive customers. A fellow member of staff was physically assaulted by someone that did not feel it was appropriate for the supermarket to tell him he had to wear a mask and so slapped them. According to the participant, the supermarket management did nothing about it as they are “scared of bad PR.”

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

Wish to return to normal life

Many participants interviewed enjoyed active social lives prior to the pandemic. Some were motivated to follow the COVID-19 guidance by a desire to return to ‘normal life’ and to resume the activities they enjoy, such as meeting friends and family without restrictions, attending or playing sports matches, going to the gym or golf course, swimming, and visiting pubs, bars and restaurants.

“I want things back to normal. I am 40 years of age and I like to play football on a Sunday, trying to relive my youth and pretend I might get signed up by [my football team]. At the same time, I want normality for my kids and my wife. I want to take my wife out for a meal, I want my children to play with their friends and have fun. You never realise how much you miss things until something like this happens and how much enjoyment was in it.”

Male, age 40 to 44 years, high income participant, Northern Ireland

“It is never going to be over if we don’t follow the rules, so we have to get on with it.”

Female, age 25 to 29 years, high income participant, England

Protection of self and family

Many participants were motivated to adhere to the COVID-19 guidance to protect their own and their families’ health. This was often an elderly parent, but could be their partner, spouse or themselves. These participants tended to comply with many areas of the COVID-19 guidance, such as handwashing, mask-wearing and social-distancing, as they felt these measures would reduce the chances of them coming into contact with coronavirus and spreading it to their families.

One healthcare worker said she followed the COVID-19 guidance and believed it works, as she has never had COVID-19 and yet she worked in an environment where she was likely to come into contact with coronavirus every day.

“Everyone I know who has had the virus, hasn’t been sticking to the guidelines.”

Female, age 50 to 54 years, high income participant, Northern Ireland

A few participants were aware of news reports of some healthy young people becoming seriously ill with COVID-19. This acted as a motivator, as they were aware that COVID-19  could affect them in a different way than they might expect (that is, to not be mild).

“We’re all young, healthy people, but you hear about stuff like some football players being ill with it, so you just don’t know what will happen, being healthy doesn’t always matter with this it seems.”

Female, age 45 to 49 years, high income participant, England

Protection of vulnerable members of society

While some participants tended to view themselves as healthy and not vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19, there was an awareness that other people in society are more vulnerable and could experience serious illness or die from it. In addition, there was some knowledge that people may have unknown vulnerabilities, which you cannot see by looking at them. This awareness and desire to protect those more vulnerable was a motivator for some of the participants interviewed. This was heightened if they were healthcare workers themselves and had seen patients suffering first-hand; a few NHS staff also pointed out that if they caught it, other key workers would have to self-isolate leading to further staff shortages. A care worker said her biggest fear was passing it on to someone already clinically extremely vulnerable.

“[I am motivated to follow the guidance because] there might be someone who is, you know, recovering from cancer or something and has a lowered immune system and then breathing all over them. I think that’s unfair. I think keeping the general population safe and not making the NHS work harder than they need to [is a motivator].”

Female, age 35 to 39 years, high income participant, England

“Just because you don’t know all of the people that could get really sick or die that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care. I’d hate to think I could be someone that made things worse or led to other people getting sick.”

Male, age 55 to 59 years, high income participant, England

Magnitude of the situation facing society

One participant felt that the recent news of a more transmissible strain of the coronavirus motivated her to comply with the guidance more closely as she understood the new strain would impact many more people, compared to the original strain. This prompted her to be more ‘vigilant’ with her behaviour, particularly around social distancing.

A few said they had been motivated by the rising case numbers and death toll recently. Another said everybody is in the same boat, and so it needed a societal response. Another retired man said, “it’s a war – a germ war!”, feeling that it was important to follow the government’s lead at such a time.

Concern for negative impacts on mental health, combined with taking precautions to minimise risk

Some participants cited wellbeing concerns, such as loneliness, recent bereavement and the negative impacts of not seeing family and friends as a demotivator to adherence to social distancing guidance.

“It is a thin line between physical and mental health. Me and my family need to be sensible, do our best to adhere to the rules but we also need to look out for each other’s mental health [especially as some of her family] are home alone.”

Female, age 40 to 44 years, high income participant, England

One participant’s concern for her relatives’ wellbeing prompted her to go against the COVID-19 guidance by forming a “three household extended bubble.” In addition to this, she also provided childcare to another relative, in their home. While the participant was aware that meeting multiple members of her family indoors was against the COVID-19 guidance, she felt justified in her choices as to her mind she was fulfilling a caring duty by supporting her wider family’s mental health and wellbeing. The participant felt safe in this decision as she had taken steps to maintain a distance with her elderly mother-in-law, for example sitting at a distance inside the home. She felt confident that if any of those in her extended bubble were to feel ill, they would let each other know and they would no longer meet inside.

“She [mother-in-law] needs it [visits from family] for her mental health, she used to go out to activities every day, she needs mental stimulation.”

Female, age 40 to 44 years, high income participant, England

Another participant regularly provided childcare for his  grandchildren (in two separate households). In addition, up until the early 2021 lockdown, the participant would visit his friend’s house to drink alcohol. The participant justified this as they took precautions such as keeping a door open, maintaining a distance, not sharing share glasses or snacks, in addition to wearing masks when not drinking. This participant felt he was constantly weighing up the risks when thinking about what to do and felt this was “a risk worth taking” for his mental health, given that he trusted the people he was seeing.

One participant in Wales visited her mother-in-law, despite awareness that Welsh guidance at the time of the interview prohibited indoor mixing between households. She was of the view that:

“[My] mother-in-law would rather see us and get the virus than not see us.”

Female, age 50 to 54 years, high income participant, Wales

Among participants who continued to meet friends and family indoors, many  believed that they were meeting up in a risk-free environment, as they had taken measures to reduce the risk of infection. These participants seemed confident in making their own judgment calls to behave outside of the official COVID-19 guidance. One participant compared the risk she was taking visiting her mother-in-law whilst taking precautions, against others who were not adhering to COVID-19 guidelines (such as by attending house parties). She felt the risk she was taking was considerably less than theirs.

Not feeling vulnerable to the coronavirus

A few participants were of the view that they were not vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19 as they were fit and healthy, and therefore they were able to make their own decisions as to how closely and to what extent they adhered to the COVID-19 guidance.

These participants were still mindful of being compliant around other household members, such as one participant making sure to wash his hands when he comes home, to protect his wife. This participant said he would not make any additional effort to wash his hands for his own health throughout the day.

“It sounds stupid, but I wouldn’t mind getting the virus to get it out of the way, I don’t have any health issues….I don’t want my wife or my in-laws to get it but I wouldn’t mind [getting it myself].”

Male, age 30 to 34 years, high income participant, England

One participant thought that they had already had a mild case of coronavirus very early on in the pandemic as he had received a  positive antibody test. He therefore believed that he was strong enough to withstand coronavirus and so this made him ambivalent about following the COVID-19 guidance. Later however he started to comply with mask wearing in shops. He had changed his view about this being necessary to protect others around him who might be vulnerable.

Perceived frequent changes to the guidance or lack of belief in their effectiveness

A few participants felt the COVID-19 guidance changed frequently and they found it challenging to keep up with the current restrictions. They felt that some of the COVID-19 guidance was contradictory, and this made it harder for them to comply with, as they then lacked faith in it as a measure to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“It doesn’t make sense to the average person’s life, like how can I meet someone outside only, but if it’s a business lunch we can go inside?”

Male, age 30 to 34 years, high income participant, England

Another participant felt demotivated by the tier system, as to him the various parts of the COVID-19 guidance around mixing with others did not make sense. For example, while in Tier 3, he could not make sense of the COVID-19 guidance allowing his children to go to nursery and mix with children and teachers, while he could not go to the pub or meet with friends.

Some felt that the government’s communication and messaging was mixed or poor, with COVID-19 guidance changing and creating confusion (for example, the Christmas 2020 bubble arrangements), or major changes being communicated with less than 24 hours’ notice (such as the school closures in January 2021). Some participants felt the government’s handling of the crisis had been weak, including being slow to introduce restrictions or weak in enforcing compliance. For some, this context led to them thinking it was best to just form their own judgements about what behaviour was appropriate. These ‘rules’ that individuals devised themselves were not necessarily more lax than government guidance, often they were stricter and in these cases it was often linked with a strong desire to protect family members, themselves, or the more vulnerable members of society.

Non-compliance among people in the public eye

A few participants felt that alleged non-compliance with social distancing among people in the public eye, as well as the perceived lack of action by the police, contributed to feeling demotivated towards following the COVID-19 guidance. A few participants also felt that police had been more lenient with COVID-19 breaches when made by people in the public eye compared to members of the public.

 “If the police came round to fine me, I would tell them to fine [person in the public eye] first, they should be out doing proper police work.”

Female, age 50 to 54 years, high income participant, Scotland

This sense of unfairness undermined motivation to follow social distancing guidance in relation to friends and family. It should be noted that this demotivation did not always translate into not following the COVID-19 guidance.

Dismay over lax behaviour of others in their local community

A few participants were frustrated or annoyed when seeking others in their local community not adhering to COVID-19 guidance.

“I think the local attitude around here demotivates me…sometimes you think, ‘is there any point in this?’”

Female, age 50 to 54 years, high income participant, Northern Ireland

“There are some repeat offenders that do the wrong thing regularly, I don’t know what we do with them. It’s so hard, but I think more needs to be done. There should be more of a crackdown.”

Male, age 55 to 59 years, high income participant, England

Lack of fear of rule enforcement

A few participants were not deterred from behaving in breach of social distancing guidance, as they were of the belief that they would not face any repercussions.

“My attitude to this is how are they going to know if we do meet for two, three or all five of the days [over Christmas] unless a neighbour happens to notice? It’s difficult to police.”

Female, age 30 to 34 years, high income participant, Northern Ireland

7. Other influences

The pattern of response to other influences was generally consistent across many participants, regardless of how much they followed the COVID-19 guidance.

There was a tendency by many to listen to and respect the views of scientific experts, for example they said they should “take notice” or “pay close attention.” Some said they were able to engage well with scientific discussions, although a few were put off by the graphs displayed during the government television briefings as they found these difficult to understand. One participant was motivated by a trusted source who was a doctor themselves and gave sobering first-hand accounts from the frontline.

A few participants who were less compliant with the COVID-19 guidance had less trust in scientific experts and felt that it was important to do their own research, ‘fact check’ against other sources (unspecified), evaluate what they heard and form their own judgement. One participant said she had stopped watching the news as it fuelled her anxiety.

“I’m fed up with listening to them – it’s constant every time you turn on the TV.”

Female, age 40 to 44 years, high income 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.