The attitudes and behaviours of low income workers during the pandemic

1. Main findings

  • Many low income workers interviewed were working in public facing roles and were under increased work pressures due to the pandemic. These pressures included working longer hours, either due to increased demand (for example in supermarkets) or due to reduced staffing (for example care staff), and reductions in hours and income. Some were also more exposed to the coronavirus (COVID-19) as a result of their work.
  • For many, employers played a critical role in their opportunities to comply. Many were compliant with rules out of necessity in fulfilling public-facing roles. However, some reported problems with their employer providing equipment or facilities to do their job safely, although even in these instances employers tended to profess a desire to provide the opportunity to comply.
  • A few reported that they were under income pressure and that they or their colleagues would not necessarily self-isolate, be tested or participate in Test and Trace because they could not afford to be off work without pay.
  • Many participants were following areas of the coronavirus (COVID-19) government guidance; by increasing their handwashing and use of sanitising gel, adhering to social distancing and wearing masks. Attitudes of friends and family played a critical role in shaping behaviour, often in a positive way.
  • A few participants who regularly ignored the COVID-19 guidance illustrated the influence of peers, in that they created opportunities for others not to comply with the COVID-19 guidance. This included not complying around social mixing, social distancing and mask wearing. This was driven by a combination of not grasping the rationale behind COVID-19 guidance, being influenced by others, being defiant in the face of the COVID-19 guidance, and not believing the severity of the pandemic. It could also be underpinned by seeking out fringe views that reinforce this behaviour (either in the media or in their network of friends and family).
  • Some participants created their own rules or justifications to give themselves permission to not follow the COVID-19 guidance. Maintaining mental health and wellbeing, sometimes for themselves, sometimes for others, was given as a justification by many of these participants.
  • For many participants a fear of coronavirus and passing it on to others, especially the vulnerable, was a motivator for adherence. Being able to socialise again and return to normality motivated both non-compliance and compliance, with many participants using it as a positive incentive. Among participants who continued socialising, there was little or no fear of COVID-19’s impact on their health.

 A full profile of the low income worker 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

Increased pressures in their job

Many participants were working longer hours as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, either due to increased demand (for example supermarkets) or due to reduced staffing as a result of self-isolation or illness (for example care staff). There were instances of some participants having earlier start times than normal for example at 2am rather than 5am, and an example of a care worker having worked for 14 days without a day off. There were others (small business owner, cleaner) who had seen a reduction in their working hours or income due to the pandemic.

Participants in customer facing roles experienced increased stress at work due to the pandemic. They were very aware of potentially being very exposed to transmission, due to being in a public facing role. For those with vulnerable adults and children in their household or support bubble, this was especially stressful. Those working in shops and supermarkets gave examples of receiving verbal assaults from customers regarding COVID-19 guidance in place in store. Care workers said they had to deal with their clients’ (older adults, some with dementia) confusion over the staff wearing PPE and pressure to remove their mask.

Daily life had generally become much more restricted

A few participants reported that life had not changed much for them during the pandemic, although even in these cases, they tended to note at least one major change, such as home-schooling children or having to cancel a holiday. Many participants noted that their lives have become limited to essential activities such as working, caring for children and grandchildren, household chores and food shopping. Many described daily life as repetitive, restrictive and boring. In some cases, this was exacerbated by having to work longer hours, leaving them with little time for other activities. For a few, the pandemic had left them with less work and a reduced income, which limited their activities and therefore reasons to leave the house. One participant described how travelling into work had been positive for his wellbeing, but his partner had recently tested positive for COVID-19 and since then he had been feeling isolated:

“I’m currently crawling the walls.”

Male, age 25 to 29 years, low income worker, Wales

For some participants, shopping for essentials had become a reason to leave the house, and some admitted increasing their shopping visits to enable them to do this:

“[I’m shopping] once every couple of days… it just gives me something to do. We don’t really need anything, but we go to do something.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, low income worker, Wales

Social interactions with people outside of the household had mostly stopped among participants, save for those in their support bubble (or extended household in Scotland and Wales). There were a few instances of people including an additional household in their support bubble beyond the two-household limit. This was justified by needing to mix for mental wellbeing reasons.

The loss of routine, and in particular restrictions on social contact, has been particularly distressing where visits to grandparents, extended family and close friends were a key part of life. The impact from lack of social contact was felt more acutely among the participants living on their own, who now had almost no social interactions. Among those in shared households, the presence of a supportive partner, other household members, or the formation of a support bubble had been very important in maintaining morale. This also helped them cope with the disruptions that the coronavirus pandemic had brought to their routines.

For a few participants, the restrictions had led to tensions within their family or relationship. Some of these participants reported breaking-up with their partner and felt this wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic.

3. Behaviour in relation to COVID-19

Many participants were compliant with many areas of the COVID-19 guidance. A few participants had adopted some of the measures before they became COVID-19 guidance, for example mask wearing and reducing social contact. This early adoption tended to be among those who had health vulnerabilities (or a member of their household did) and those who worked with vulnerable people.

The COVID-19 guidance area that participants tended to make exceptions for was their support bubbles and social mixing more broadly. Many participants did not think they had their own rules but suggested instead that they weigh up the risks, do what feels safe and use common sense. In these cases, participants seemed to consciously or unconsciously weigh up risks against impacts on wellbeing. For example, meeting someone outside their household, or forming a support bubble with an additional household beyond the two-household limit felt ‘safe enough’ and was seen as having a big positive impact on their wellbeing. In their assessment of the risks and safety of behaviour, participants considered where they were meeting others (for example in the car was felt to be safer), and how they were meeting (for example seeing grandparents on their doorstep and not hugging them).

A few participants actively disregarded COVID-19 guidance or complied with the absolute minimum to ensure they could go about their regular business. In a few other cases, participants would adhere minimally and then stop (for example wearing a mask when boarding a bus but then taking it off).

Hand washing and sanitising

Handwashing and use of sanitising gel were high among the participants interviewed. Many viewed handwashing and sanitising positively and it was seen as the easiest areas of the COVID-19 guidance to comply with. Many reported more frequent handwashing and sanitising at key points throughout the day, for example before and after entering shops, before and after returning home, and at work.

While all participants interviewed claimed to wash their hands, some participants – who tended not to comply with other areas of the COVID-19 guidance – were keen to stress that their hand washing (and general hygiene) was at the same level as it was before the pandemic. One such participant said he used soap and water rather than sanitiser because he felt sanitiser would reduce his protection from germs.

Increased hygiene to limit chances of catching coronavirus

Participants mentioned other hygiene strategies employed to limit the chances of them bringing coronavirus home from school, work, or the supermarket. For example, there were instances where parents had made their children change out of their school uniforms and shower on getting home from school. Similarly, a few noted they would shower or wash and have a change of clothes immediately on getting home from work.

There were also some instances of participants washing vegetables and food packaging brought home from the supermarket, for fear of bringing contaminated items home. This behaviour was seen in those who reported being very anxious about coronavirus, had health concerns or were in contact with vulnerable people.

“[Cleaning at work and at home is] one of those things that’s driving me mental.”

Female, age 30 to 34 years, low income worker, England

For some other participants there was a general relaxation of this behaviour over time, due to a reduction in anxiety levels and new information about the spread of coronavirus, for example information suggesting transmission through surfaces was less common.

“Now I feel like I’ve taken my foot off the gas. I don’t wear gloves when shopping, don’t wipe down door handles like I did religiously at the start. Occasionally I wipe the shopping down. My behaviour has changed over time.”

Female, age 25to 29 years, low income worker, Scotland

Wearing a mask

Mask wearing was seen as especially important among those with vulnerable people in their support bubble, household or working environment. Participants mostly used face coverings to some degree. Many said they used masks where they were mandatory such as in shops, on transport and in other indoor spaces.

A few participants said they wore a mask at all times when out of their home. All of these cited concern for vulnerable people as their motivation, such as having a child with asthma, and some of them began wearing masks before it was COVID-19 guidance. A few other participants noted that they were only compliant because it was mandatory. One participant had an exemption to wearing a mask and carried a card, but changed her mind and started wearing a mask when she heard that it offered some level of protection to herself.

Of the participants who were not wearing masks, one would wear a mask getting onto public transport and then move it down her face when she sat down. She was aware that this would attract stares from other passengers but said she did not care. This participant explored an exemption because she wore glasses, which steamed up and made her feel enclosed and anxious. Yet she said she “couldn’t be bothered” to gather the medical evidence, so instead found ways to have a mask but not use it effectively. She had never been challenged in the store she worked in:

“I was challenged once in [another] supermarket and I just put my mask up and dropped it below my nose [when they moved away].”

Female, age 50 to 54 years,  low income worker, England

One of the other participants who refused to wear a mask said he understood COVID-19 was an airborne virus, but believed masks caused more damage to an individual’s health by breathing in one’s “carbon monoxide”, a belief he had developed from doing his own research.

“[It] is a direct threat to my own personal health, I just won’t do it…the mask is a big thing for me. A big thing.”

Male, age 35 to 39 years, low income worker, England

Another participant who did not wear a mask had adapted her behaviour to avoid having to “tow the party line”, by avoiding her town centre and interacting with people in general. She could not stand to see other people wearing masks, feeling it was a sign of weakness and wished that people would stand up for what they believed in, rather than wear a mask to avoid confrontation:

“When I see people in supermarkets wearing dirty masks, or pulling a mask out of their pocket, I just feel sad.”

Female, age 40 to 44 years, low income worker, England

Among participants, there was a divide between those in public facing roles and those working from home. Those in public facing roles were wearing a face covering as part of their work and mostly felt this had become a norm. They often described it as easy and expressed frustration at those not wearing masks. Some experienced hassle or discomfort with a mask but they mostly tolerated the inconvenience. Those working from home were more sceptical about masks (although many wore them publicly) and described wearing them as annoying or frustrating.

Social distancing

Overall, participants limited their exposure to other people outside of their household to help stop the chances of catching and spreading coronavirus in several ways.

Grocery shopping was limited, in some cases moved online entirely. There were some exceptions, for example a few individuals were going shopping more frequently during the spring 2020 and winter 2020 lockdowns as an activity to pass the time or get out of the house.

Participants reported trying to keep a two-metre distance from others but often (and with frustration) noted that this was not always possible as other people did not follow COVID-19 guidance on social distancing, particularly in shops and supermarkets. Even those who choose not to follow other COVID-19 guidance would usually claim to adhere to social distancing in public spaces like shops, either out of respect for others or to do ‘the absolute minimum’ to ensure they can shop for food.

Most participants had reduced their travel, stayed local, avoided public transport and places likely to be crowded.

Many participants also reported taking care to minimise contact with family and friends outside of the household, for example by not hugging others, or only meeting grandparents on their doorstep.

A few participants said they never conformed to social distancing. One felt it was her own personal choice:

“I don’t social distance. Others can social distance, that’s their choice and they may say they’re not meeting me. I’ll meet others who are a bit laid back about it like myself.”

Female, age 50 to 54 years, low income worker, England

Another said that while she conformed to social distancing in her public-facing role at work, as a person living on her own, she felt unable to comply when among her friends, who were used to hugging and kissing.

“A couple of people in the group aren’t [hugging and kissing]. You can physically see them backing off but most of us are still continuing to do it. I miss my friends. I am lonely on my own and I need that human contact.”

Female, age 45 to 49 years, low income worker, England

Self-isolation

A few participants had been advised to self-isolate and had done this, and some had stopped before the end of the isolation period because they were able to get a negative test result. Most of those who had not had to isolate felt they would find it relatively easy to do so if they were told to, as they tended to have a good amount of space at home. Yet a few participants who had not been asked to isolate reported that they were under income pressure and that they, or their colleagues, would not necessarily self-isolate, be tested or participate in Test and Trace. This was because they could not afford to be off work without pay.

“I have still been going to work but there are people [staff] who have been going back to work sooner than what they should [after self-isolating] and not telling the company themselves because they are not getting the full wage anymore. I think that is why people are going back into work, it’s the money, because you get rid of one problem, but you’ve got something else [debt].”

Female, age 50 to 54 years, low income worker, England

“[On not downloading the test and trace app] I don’t want to be out of work. You have to isolate, and I don’t want to do that. If there is someone I know that has it [COVID-19] I will isolate but I don’t want Joe Bloggs down the road having to make me isolate.”

Female, age 60 to 64 years, low income worker, Northern Ireland

One participant working as a care worker reported high awareness amongst staff of the COVID-19 guidance and entitlements for workers self-isolating. While she had isolated when she suspected she had contracted COVID-19, many of her colleagues had not done so, either because they felt they could not afford to (without sick pay) or because they did not believe it was necessary. She mentioned colleagues citing the absence of sick pay if they were unable work. The participant did not download the Track and Trace app in case she was notified that she had to isolate, because she was aware that they would only qualify for a single one-off payment.

A few participants did not think the benefit of isolating was worth the sacrifice of staying inside, yet understood it was for the greater good of more vulnerable members of society.

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

Many participants showed a good understanding of how coronavirus spreads and of the COVID-19 guidance. Even the few participants who admitted becoming confused with the news and changing advice, appeared to grasp the essential facts. However, while surface transmission was well understood and respected, the actions of some participants suggested airborne transmission was viewed as less threatening, or something that could be managed through precautions. Non-compliance with the COVID-19 guidance was therefore more likely to take place around socialising and forming support bubbles.

A few participants likened coronavirus to flu in how it spreads and behaves and did not see a difference between the two. In these cases, the individuals played down the significance of COVID-19; one felt the dangers of coronavirus were being over-played by the government, another believed that COVID-19 would spread regardless of whether people followed COVID-19 guidance or not. These participants had conducted their own research on the issue and regularly ignored COVID-19 guidance.

“The coronavirus is a virus, it’s like flu, it’s like swine flu, and in some ways you can’t stop a virus. You can do things to try and do your best to prevent catching it but at the end of the day it’s a virus, a virus spreads, that’s what it does.”

Male, age 40 to 44 years, low income worker, England

Participants mostly recalled the COVID-19 guidance around hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing unprompted.

Participants demonstrated a good understanding of how masks can help reduce the spread of coronavirus to others and mask wearing was generally accepted as a norm. There was one notable exception to this. One participant had a good understanding of the rationale for mask wearing but believed this to be false. Instead, he believed mask wearing does not reduce the spread and that it was detrimental to your overall health, through information he had found in his own research and through social media.

Participants also understood the need for handwashing after touching things because coronavirus could exist on surfaces. As with wearing masks, for many this had become instinctive. Other participants highlighted that they regularly washed their hands pre-COVID-19 for personal hygiene reasons.

The importance of keeping a distance was also understood but participants found this difficult because other people would come too close, for example, by pushing past them in supermarkets.

The one area where participants were a little less certain was COVID-19 guidance around travel and the number of people they could meet. Some noted with frustration that the COVID-19 guidance around how many people they should meet indoors and outdoors had changed numerous times. For these participants, changes did not always feel intuitive. For instance, one participant noted that it did not seem logical that 15 people could meet for an event such as a wedding and funeral but that he could not see his grandparents. Another noted that it was frustrating not being able to meet her grandchildren while “100 people are in the pub”.

One participant saw the COVID-19 guidance as something to research and bend as far as possible, in contrast to the law which she was aware she could not break.

“You don’t purposely want to break the rules. It’s not like we are aiming to break them, but I think I have got to the stage where if I don’t break the rules what’s my other option? Life is for living. You cannot stay within your own company for months on end. It’s really unfair to expect people to do that… we look at the advice and then think how do we get around that [social distancing or mixing households]. Is it advice or is it the law? We might look at that slightly different. If it’s advice, then we do then bend it as far as we can.”

Female, age 45 to 49 years, low income worker, England

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

Employers played an important role in supporting behaviour which reduces the spread

Opportunities to be compliant were often shaped by employers. Among those in public facing roles, the extent to which participants could be compliant with government advice was shaped by their employer and workplace. Those working in retail environments noted that some customers did not respect social distancing or wear masks and confronting these customers could be challenging and unpleasant. Those working as carers also commented that their tasks and working environment made social distancing very challenging, as they often needed to physically support their clients, for example to lift them.

The individual employer had considerable impact on workers’ ability to comply. Some participants felt their employers were very supportive and protective of them as workers, for example paying them out of their savings because they were not eligible for furlough or providing masks and hand sanitiser at work. Others felt their employers did not care for their wellbeing, for example a supermarket employee said their employer refused to provide masks, gloves and hand sanitiser until the union got involved and applied pressure.

“We went into lockdown and people were ordering more and more food [online] … [my employer] did nothing at all … it took us getting the union to kick off before we had anything … I know [my employer] doesn’t care about us.”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, low income worker, Wales

Another supermarket worker said that there were no suitable facilities for handwashing beyond using the relatively small toilets. This led to overcrowding if everyone tried to wash their hands as often as they should. A participant working at another supermarket said that there used to be announcements to ask customers to respect staff, but this did not happen anymore. Subsequently, they were exposed to customers not wearing masks or people getting too close to them to ask questions. One participant also said the shop that they worked in was too small for social distancing to be viable.

Attitudes and situations of family and friends played a crucial role

The behaviour of family and friends could enable both compliant and non-compliant behaviour. Some participants said they followed the COVID-19 guidance because their family members did, meaning there was no immediate influence encouraging them not to comply. For some, their family’s opinion also gave them a sense of purpose. For example they followed the COVID-19 guidance because they knew it made their parent or partner feel safe or less anxious and this gave the behaviour more meaning. For some, it also made socialising easier because those around them had a shared understanding of how to assess risk. They would discuss their behaviour and reach a mutual decision, which may or may not be in line with the COVID-19 guidance.

A few participants mentioned having friends who were less compliant or who supported conspiracy theories about coronavirus not being real, but they ignored these views and behaviours. Some participants displayed a strong sense of selflessness to follow COVID-19 guidance despite the conflicting views of those around them. For example, one participant isolated twice with minimal financial support despite those around him not doing so. When he saw other people ignoring the COVID-19 guidance, he said it encouraged him to adhere even more, to make up for their mistakes.

“Nobody wants to endanger somebody else so you take precautions to reduce the spread, and everyone wants to get back to normal so you do your bit in helping that.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, low income worker, England

However, there were a few examples of participants who regularly did not comply with the COVID-19 guidance, being influenced by their social groups. One participant hosted a family gathering once a week at her home and this had continued throughout the pandemic. She claimed her friends’ views concurred with hers and reaffirmed her actions.

A different participant created an environment that encouraged non-compliance. She instigated a local group that collectively decided not to follow the COVID-19 guidance on a regular basis. Following the spring 2020 lockdown, she organised a picnic that mixed households. She and her friends organised a WhatsApp group to plan other events like this. When visiting hospitality venues, they presented themselves as a single household bubble, giving same postcode when asked for personal details.

Another participant met with his friends in their car group, and they went out driving together. He thought this was against the COVID-19 guidance but justified it by the precautions they took.

“We were not harming anyone. No one was touching anyone or getting out of their cars … it was different to how we used to do it. We used to drive somewhere nice with a view, get out the car and sit in your camping chairs but due to social distancing we can’t.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, low income worker, Wales

Socialising preferences and housing situations supported the guidance

Some participants said they did not normally socialise in large groups so found that easy to avoid. Most of the participants in this group were living with families, in multi-generational households or with friends and therefore felt they were socialising enough which made it easier to avoid other social contact. These participants also tended to feel they had enough space in the home (and often a garden) which made social distancing and isolating feasible.

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

Protecting others, both as family members and simply as fellow humans strongly encouraged participants to comply with the COVID-19 guidance. Participants mostly took the threat of coronavirus seriously enough to want to protect themselves, although protecting others was spoken of more. Participants were also motivated by the idea of adherence to the COVID-19 guidance bringing an end to the pandemic.

The main demotivating factors were the impact on mental health and wellbeing from a lack of social contact, and frustration at seeing others ‘enjoying’ breaching the COVID-19 guidance, for example by meeting up with friends.

Fear of the coronavirus and the need to protect self and others

For many participants a motivation cited for sticking to the COVID-19 guidance was a fear of coronavirus and awareness of the damage it could do. The health status of themselves and family members therefore strongly influenced behaviours. For most of these participants, a desire to protect their loved ones, particularly those who were vulnerable, was a motivation to comply. There was also a sense of duty to the wider population and a responsibility to not put other members of society at risk. Some participants became quite angry at others in society not playing their part.

“I didn’t have much faith in humanity anyway but now I hate people. If people were not so inconsiderate and selfish this pandemic would probably not be as bad as it is, and it could be over now … people are going out even if they have symptoms … it angers me.”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, low income worker, Wales

Many thought about the duty towards others in society in relation to mask wearing, as participants referred to wanting to protect others around them. This desire usually outweighed any discomfort or annoyance caused by wearing the mask.

“You want to reduce the amount of people who do get it and you don’t want to pass it on to anyone … why would you? If you are not taking precautions, you could pass it on because of your laziness.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, low income worker, England

There were participants who had health conditions themselves and their behaviour was driven by self-preservation. There were also a few individuals who both had health conditions themselves and vulnerable family members. Many of these participants were hyper vigilant and took every precaution.

Some participants were not fearful of coronavirus

Conversely, there were a few individuals who were not afraid of coronavirus, which motivated non-compliant behaviour. One was a young individual who perceived themselves as fit and healthy and therefore did not think COVID-19 would seriously affect them. Another knew someone in his household who had what he thought was a mild case of COVID-19 and based on this, the participant was not concerned about the impact of catching coronavirus. In both cases, these participants felt the personal impact of COVID-19 on them did not justify the sacrifices they were being asked to make. Another participant felt that masks were problematic in terms of being able to breathe normally and felt that by wearing them and encouraging so much use of hand sanitiser, there was a risk of lowering people’s immune systems. Some participants likened COVID-19 to flu and could not understand why it was not being treated the same way.

A handful did not agree with the guidance, reducing motivation to comply

Another demotivating theme was the idea that wearing masks had a damaging effect on society as it reduced meaningful interaction and positive experiences with other people, by not being able to see all of the face, particularly their smile. There was a sense from some participants that mask wearing had made interactions ‘clinical’ by creating physical barriers, as well as emotional and social barriers that they felt could have a lasting impact.

Wanting to return to normality

Wanting life to get back to normal was another important motivator for participants who believed that by being conscientious, they were speeding up the return to normality. Many participants were optimistic that their current situation was not permanent and that it would end. Knowing that the restrictions were temporary made adhering to them more manageable. For a few other participants, the lack of an impact guidance had on COVID-19 transmissions nationally was demotivating.

Many participants were particularly motivated by the thought of meeting up with family again, enjoying activities outside the home, such as going to restaurants and the cinema, and generally socialising. The hope of returning to normal activities was linked to the concept of everyone playing their part by following the COVID-19 guidance.

“We…need to do everything we can so we can get through this and to a stage where we can be free to be together again and if we don’t follow the rules it will go on and on.”

Female, age 50 to 54 years, low income worker, Scotland

Scientific experts were sometimes cited as motivators for following the COVID-19 guidance, with some participants fearing repeated lockdowns if society didn’t heed their advice.

“We are all forced to follow it but I would anyway, and it comes from the scientists so it is a reliable source but there is no choice but to follow the guidance … if I have done everything to protect myself I am protecting others. If I don’t sanitise and wear a mask I have not done what I can.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, low income worker, Wales

Some followed the COVID-19 guidance more reluctantly, acknowledging it was the best route back to normality, even if their own adherence had been mixed:

“I guess you’ve got to [follow the guidance]. Everyone has got to, haven’t they? It’s not brilliant, but if it helps a bit to get back to normal.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, low income worker, England

Others had deliberately planned things to look forward to in 2021 to motivate themselves to ‘stick with it.’ A few mentioned that the COVID-19 vaccines and the prospect of this bringing an end to the pandemic motivated them to continue with current restrictions. This is explored in more detail in the ‘feelings and compliance around the coronavirus vaccines’ section.

Guidance was more motivating when the rationale was easy to understand

Some participants felt some parts of the COVID-19 guidance were more logical than others and they were more motivated to follow the measures they could easily understand and which they felt demonstrated clear causality. This included handwashing, because participants understood the need to wash off germs, and mask wearing, to prevent transmitting coronavirus to someone nearby.

The COVID-19 guidance around socialising and not meeting other people was felt to be less clear and the impact less certain. Many participants understood that coronavirus spreads through airborne particles, but many felt that by wearing a mask and keeping a two-metre distance the risk was negated. Some of these participants questioned why going to see a relative for example was not allowed, when they had seen groups of people mixing inside in a bar or restaurant. There was not an overall understanding that, indoors, the virus aerosolises when you breathe out and without ventilation the viral load would build up in the room until it reaches a critical mass where people can become infected. Other participants who followed the guidance about meeting inside or in social places did not explicitly refer to the virus aerosolising in confined spaces.

“Why can a hundred people be sat in a pub, but I can’t see my 15-year-old grandson? It doesn’t make sense, so I’m going to make my own mind up.”

Female, age 70 to 74 years, low income worker, England

The belief that the measures were not helping reduce rates of infection only supported this confusion.

“Everyone is confused, and I’m confused too, we’ve done lockdown for weeks and yet our rates are up so it hasn’t helped that way.”

Female, age 60 to 64 years, low income worker, Northern Ireland

Adhering to social norms was important for many, but not all

Many participants reported that they wanted to be ‘seen to be doing the right thing.’ This might be in public places where they wore masks and followed floor markings, to avoid being seen as a rulebreaker or because they did not want to be thought of badly by friends and family. For example, one individual, who consistently did not wear a mask and believed it to be detrimental to do so, said he felt very uncomfortable being seen not wearing one in public, while another who did not follow the COVID-19 guidance on masks was keen to avoid losing the respect of his children and family and become the ‘black sheep’ of the family, that is the only one who was not adhering to guidance. Although he personally would not wear a mask, he was careful not to criticise those that did in front of his children.

In contrast, a few followed the COVID-19 guidance, but only minimally. For example, one participant wore a mask to board the bus and then took it down. They were quite happy to draw attention and did not care what others thought. Another was baffled by mainstream adherence to the COVID-19 guidance and had enough reinforcement from her own network to justify continuing to break the rules. She appeared quite happy to lose friends who disagreed with her.

Less compliant participants were respectful of others’ compliance

Participants who persistently did not follow COVID-19 guidance still respected other people’s space and boundaries. They took the view that if others wanted to socially distance, that was their choice and none of these participants stated an intention to deliberately provoke or invade the space of someone following the COVID-19 guidance. Some also mentioned changing their habits to reduce their contact with people, such as shopping less frequently. However, this was often done through self-interest as they found being surrounded by people conforming with COVID-19 guidance (particularly mask-wearing) depressing.

Challenging non-compliance

A few felt society should challenge non-compliers more often, particularly when in shops and other public spaces. One shop worker complained that their employer was strict on staff adherence but did not challenge their customers to meet the same standards. Another shop worker said they sometimes challenged customers who did not follow COVID-19 guidance, but were less inclined to do so toward the end of their shift, knowing the aggravation it might bring:

“I probably should tell everyone but sometimes I don’t want to deal with it if they are not affecting me. The longer the shift goes on, the more I want to go home in case they say something.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, low income worker, Wales

Following the guidance became second nature

Many participants described some of the behaviours as habit or ‘second nature.’ This was particularly the case for handwashing, sanitising and mask wearing. Some participants mentioned that when they left the house they did not check for their phone and keys anymore, they checked for their mask and antibacterial gel. Other participants also described avoiding places that were likely to be crowded and keeping their distance from others as habits, although they required more ‘conscious’ effort than mask wearing and handwashing.

Mental health and wellbeing concerns were important motivators in non-adherence to social mixing guidance

Participants described fatigue from lack of social contact over a long period of time and this impacted their motivation. When they did not follow social distancing guidance, mental wellbeing was often used to justify this. In some cases, not being able to see family was felt especially acutely, particularly when experiencing sickness or bereavement during the spring and winter 2020 lockdowns. In other cases, participants reporting feeling too restricted stuck at home or desired the emotional support of seeing friends face-to-face. One participant who drove out of her area to visit a beach offered the following justification:

“It’s how you do it and how sensible you are. I felt I needed to go out for a drive that might be five miles out of my district, and that’s me breaking the rules. But [because] I felt it was going to help my mental health in that moment, then it’s something that you almost don’t think about, you just do… it tends not to be anything too drastic or anything that will impact on anybody else.”

Female, age 25 to 29 years, low income worker, Scotland

Lack of trust in government

A few participants who regularly ignored COVID-19 guidance expressed mistrust of government, feeling that it had deliberately stoked fear of COVID-19 to increase control of society, and this was one of their motivations for non-compliance. These participants were also likely to say they had conducted their own research into coronavirus and likened it to flu. They said they used regular day-to-day hygiene practices rather than anything in addition. These participants also tended to believe that some of the COVID-19 hygiene measures were damaging because they compromised immune systems.

“I’m angry at the handling of it. That statistics have been put out there to absolutely scare people to death!… I am not asymptomatic, I’m healthy. So if I wasn’t healthy, I would do these things naturally. I don’t trust the government and I would rather listen to people who have absolutely nothing to gain, by telling us the truth.”

Female, age 40 to 44 years, low income worker, England

7. Other influences

Most participants reported good relationships with authority figures (teachers, police, parents) and this appeared to be linked with compliant behaviour and a willingness to follow rules. Positive relationships with parents appeared to be especially key; they were often mentioned as role models and played an important role in influencing behaviour related to the pandemic. Participants who regularly ignored the COVID-19 guidance were more likely to criticise authority, generally feeling the country’s leadership and the police had lost the public’s respect.

There was a range of opinions on scientific experts. A few participants were very critical and suspicious of where the experts’ evidence comes from (one citing the thalidomide tragedy), while others said that they trusted them but with caution and were careful to do reading to corroborate reports. At the other end of the spectrum, one participant had complete faith and actively looked forward to hearing from experts. Participants who reported often not following the COVID-19 guidance tended to be most suspicious of scientists, particularly those employed by the government.

“It depends which scientific experts they are. If they are government scientific experts, [I don’t trust them] so much…they are all on payroll! But if they are like [public figure] or other people, then I’m very open to listening to what they have to say.”

Female, age 40 to 44 years, low income worker, England

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.