The attitudes and behaviours of students during the pandemic

1. Main findings

  • Many students felt they were ‘missing out’ on the university experience. Many felt learning remotely was not as effective as learning in person and a few felt they were not receiving value for money from their fees. They also felt they were missing out on social experiences by not being able to go out to parties or clubs.
  • Participants typically had the opportunity to follow coronavirus (COVID-19) government guidance when in their familial homes, study space or workplace but wider life on or around student areas made compliance much more difficult due to the behaviours of others and the temptations to be more social in a university environment.
  • In a university environment, coronavirus was not perceived to be as much of a threat as elsewhere. Some participants knew people who had had COVID-19 but had not been seriously affected by it. They therefore concluded that they would recover easily if they caught it, so saw no harm in attending parties or mixing in large groups.
  • Participants showed good awareness of ‘Hands, Face, Space’ COVID-19 guidance and of how COVID-19 spreads, although there was some confusion due to a lack of clarity or perceived contradictions on the tier system and travel restrictions.
  • Mental wellbeing considerations and frustration at seeing others bend or break the COVID-19 guidance led some participants to socialise more than permitted, using their own ‘risk assessment’ approaches to manage the risk of transmission.
  • Despite feeling less at risk from coronavirus themselves, many participants cared about the welfare of other groups and expressed concerns about passing on coronavirus to older or more vulnerable people.
  • Participants were notable in moving from context to context, and in adapting their behaviours to the different contexts in which they found themselves. They were often more careful in following the COVID-19 guidance when with their families, than when in or around student areas. However, few mentioned putting any steps in place to safely manage the transition from student areas to family home.

 A full profile of the student 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

Participants experienced significant life changes to living situations and work

Participants’ weekdays tended to be structured around online learning for their university studies, for example watching online lectures or seminars and taking notes. A few participants were preparing for end of year online exams or coursework submissions. Mostly they had structured days with a set timetable where they would generally start and finish work at the same times each day.

“Literally, (I) wake up, uni work and then try and go on a walk every lunch time for 45 mins to an hour, then have lunch, then start work (at the online youth centre) at 5pm and then that takes me through to 7 or 8pm and then have dinner and then just chill after dinner, watch TV.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

Evenings were spent cooking, exercising, playing online games or spending time with other members of the household, such as parents or flatmates. Grocery shopping was limited to a couple of times a week.

Participants reported experiencing several significant life changes over the past few months, including:

  • Several moves back and forth between their parental home and student residence as a result of the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns.
  • A move from some in-person teaching to all online studying. All but one participant interviewed were attending online lectures only.
  • Less opportunity for mixing with others (especially for participants studying in their first year).
  • Holidays and foreign research trips cancelled.
  • Loss of, or furlough from, employment.
  • A few participants had experienced a recent bereavement (one of which was due to COVID-19).

While participants typically felt they managed the challenges of COVID-19 restrictions well, some were more negative

Some participants sensed that there was nothing to look forward to in life, and they were unable to see how the pandemic would resolve.

“I hate it to be honest. I feel like it’s going to be like this for a long time. I can’t see anything positive come out of it for a while.”

Male, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

Many participants also expressed a feeling of loss for missed experiences, particularly around the social aspect of university, for example the opportunity to meet new people from different courses or outside of their existing friendship group. A few participants had found the switch to online learning particularly challenging as they found it difficult to motivate themselves in the absence of having the external routine of attending scheduled classes and lectures. A few participants found that their studying experience was largely unaffected.

“You only live once, you go to university once, so you want to go out partying … If someone was going to uni this year I’d tell them to take a gap year. It’s not worth it this year, you don’t get the university experience.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

“Normally I might go shopping most days, go to friends’ houses most days or nights, go clubbing every night and often visit friends at other universities at the weekend…quite hard not to do these things.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

Among those working, changes to their jobs such as furlough or losing their job, brought additional strain and disappointment. For a few participants, there were no notable negative changes to their working situation. Some participants were actively looking for work but had found it difficult to identify suitable vacancies.

The difficulty of remote learning and not being able to mix or bond with other students were recurring themes among participants. While there was a general consensus that the online materials provided were of a high standard, not being able to see lecturers or personal tutors in person was a drawback. Some participants found that it could be hard to get replies to emails and that there was no substitute for being able to knock on a professor’s door. Some also felt that they were not getting value for money because of the way they were being taught but some participants made no reference to these tribulations.

Although unsure when it will happen, some participants were planning for positive experiences when restrictions ease

For many of these participants, this involved being able to spend time with their friends again. Some were planning holidays or longer trips; something that they felt they would be able to do, having saved money during the previous 2020 and 2021 lockdowns. One participant was planning to spend a year studying abroad both for the experience and to extend their university experience by a year to hopefully enjoy it without lockdown restrictions.

“(I’m) looking forward to getting it all out of the way and going on holiday.”

Male, age 25-34 years, student participant, Scotland

Some participants identified some positives of lockdown restrictions

Some participants acknowledged that there were a few positive effects to have come out of the national lockdowns in 2020 and early 2021.

There was now perceived to be a slower pace of life, with fewer external pressures, for example pressure to go out regularly. One participant who previously had a very busy social schedule had noticed the positive benefits which reduced interaction had brought him and another felt less pressure to keep up with too many social obligations. Related to this, there was greater appreciation of ‘the important things in life’, which were interpreted as family and friends. In the absence of being able to meet face to face, technology such as video calls, quizzes, and watching shared movies helped to fill in the gaps.

One participant preferred online learning as it allowed them to learn at their own pace. Another found that not having to commute to university gave them more time and they also noted the environmental benefit of not travelling as much. Some felt positive about the shift to remote learning, appreciating the flexibility of having recorded lectures that could be watched at their convenience.

Looking forward to the Christmas break

At the time of interview, many participants were looking forward to spending time with family and friends during the Christmas break, particularly those who were living in shared student accommodation. Few mentioned putting any steps in place to safely manage the transition from student areas to the family home. Among the few who had taken precautions to prepare for going back to the family home for the break, examples of these precautions were reducing or limiting their exposure to people outside of their household and preparing to take a COVID-19 test.

3. Behaviour in relation to COVID-19

In some respects, participants reported a high level of compliance with the COVID-19 guidance. Participants’ behaviour and everyday engagement with their environment was organised around ‘Hands, Face, Space’ (the government’s slogan about washing and hand sanitizing, wearing a mask and keeping a two meter distance from others). Some of the measures to stop the spread of coronavirus felt like ‘second nature’ and made sense to participants. However, mental wellbeing considerations and frustration at seeing others bend or break the COVID-19 guidance had led some participants to socialise more than permitted – using their own ‘risk assessment’ approaches to manage the risk of transmission. Other participants stuck more rigidly to the guidance, however.

Wearing a mask

There was very high adoption of mask-wearing among participants, with all wearing masks in spaces where they were required to do so, for example shops.

A few participants said they did not like the feeling of wearing a mask but that it was important to continue wearing one, especially to protect other (more vulnerable) people. A few participants had started wearing masks at the start of the pandemic before they became aware of the COVID-19 guidance; this was among participants who lived with or had contact with a vulnerable or elderly relative.

One participant explained why she wears a mask even though she does not like to:

“I always take my mask everywhere. I don’t like wearing a mask but I’ll wear it out of respect for you anyway because I don’t want to give it to you… [If I have COVID-19] I’m probably asymptomatic so don’t want to be spreading it and killing them.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, Scotland

Handwashing and sanitising

Participants generally reported increased hand washing and sanitising when in environments outside of the home and when returning home. Participants mostly found this an easy step to take and felt that it made sense to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus that they may have picked up when out and about. Many also said that they carry their own sanitiser with them in case they need it while a few used publicly available sanitiser.

“I sanitise my hands a lot, a lot, a lot. They’re a mess.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, Scotland

Additional hygiene measures

There were a few participants who took additional hygiene measures to stop the spread of coronavirus and reduce their chances of catching it. This was particularly among participants who had a vulnerable adult in their household or had contact with a grandparent in their support bubble. For example, one participant reported that since the start of the pandemic their family has wiped down every piece of food they bring into the house and that they continue to do so. A couple of participants also reported that they immediately removed clothes and washed them when returning from outside although one had since stopped because they no longer thought it was necessary.


A few of participants reported that they had needed to self-isolate because they had contracted COVID-19 or been in contact with somebody who had. They were able to find and follow the COVID-19 guidance around self-isolation without any problems.

Social distancing

Overall, the participants interviewed took at least some measures to reduce physical proximity with other people outside of their household or support bubble.

Care was particularly taken when meeting with elderly relatives or when a clinically vulnerable person was in the household. For example, one participant reported that they minimised physical proximity when meeting their grandparent indoors to reduce the risk of transmission by sitting at the opposite end of a room. This participant understood that COVID-19 was more easily transmissible when there was close contact with an infected person. However, they did not have an understanding of ‘viral load’ building up within an indoor space. Another participant preferred not to meet their grandparent indoors to further reduce the risk, and instead opted for walks in the park or virtual meetings using videocall, as this felt safer to them.

There was also evidence of some participants reducing or limiting their social contact with friends outside of their household to reduce the risk of catching or spreading coronavirus. On the other hand, some participants continued to do this. One participant made a conscious decision not to visit bars after the Spring 2020 lockdown and turned down invitations from friends to socialise. This participant considered that social environments where alcohol is likely to be consumed reduces the chances of observing social distancing and therefore increases the risk of virus transmission:

“You are going to be in a bar with drunk people … personal space you will not be able to control as much … saying no to other people is harder than saying it to yourself because you don’t want to offend anyone … they said ‘come on it will be fine’ but I said ‘it is not something I feel comfortable doing at the minute and I would rather wait for a vaccine before I am in a bar or club environment … and cafes.’ [I consider the person] who sat here before me and did they properly clean it and the cutlery … can you trust it has been cleaned? It doesn’t feel worth it to go out.”

Male, age 25-34 years, student participant, Northern Ireland

Another participant whose sports team was very important to him changed the way he greeted and interacted with his teammates to reduce the risk of catching or spreading coronavirus. For example, he no longer used physical greetings such as handshakes and he was more mindful of the space they occupy when playing football, trying to minimise close contact.

For some participants, however, seeing other people break or bend the COVID-19 guidance by meeting up with friends has been frustrating and given rise to a sense of ‘if they can do it then why can’t I?’ Some participants had then met up with additional households beyond their support bubble but in a manner that they felt reduced the risk of coronavirus transmission. For example, one participant met up with a friend outside for a walk in the park and considered this to be ‘safe’ even though it did not follow the COVID-19 guidance. Their rationale was that they were both outside and had each had relatively little contact with other people outside of their household. Some participants also took precautions that they felt mitigated the risk of mixing indoors such as sitting apart or making sure windows were open.

Others saw no problem in seeing their friends:

“I’m not too bothered … lockdown ripped my life away from me. I always ask my friends if we can see each other … some said ‘no’ … but I’ve seen three of them … my best friend is pretty lax with it as well.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

A few participants socialised outside of the ‘rule of six’, for example attending house parties. For these participants, consideration was given to their mental health and the negative impacts of not socialising with friends. As one participant put it:

“I’ve got to make a choice. Do I stay in and feel miserable, or make the choice to go out and feel better than just being stuck in my room?”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

These participants tended to do a risk assessment of the situation, including whether any of their friends were ill or had recently been, and whether or not friends’ social mixing had also been relatively limited. Despite feeling safe to go to parties, one of the participants said they would take a test before going to the family home to reduce the risk of transmission to their parents.

Some participants avoided public transport altogether while some, if they had to use it, would travel at times when they thought buses or trains would be quieter. The same was true of gyms: while some avoided these altogether, others altered their routines to account for better social distancing.

“(Gyms) are not safe to me – you don’t feel comfortable … because of touching surface areas, because not everyone will have the same hygiene levels as you, especially in a public space.”

Male, age 25-34 years, student participant, Northern Ireland

Meeting with others

All participants reported that they had reduced the number of social interactions they had. Some would not meet anybody outside of their household, some would see people remotely or outside and others would still socialise in contravention of the COVID-19 guidance but nowhere near as much as they would have done previously.

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

Participants tended to show good awareness of the COVID-19 guidance although there were some examples of it being perceived as confusing or contradictory. There were few examples of not being capable of following the COVID-19 guidance. However, many participants felt it was less important to follow the COVID-19 guidance in a university environment where a lot of social mixing would inevitably happen in contradiction to government advice.

Generally good awareness of coronavirus, how it spreads and of the COVID-19 guidance

Mostly, participants were able to cite the COVID-19 guidance unprompted and were aware of how coronavirus spreads. Often there was a high level of knowledge as a result of an active interest in the subject. Many participants reported that they consulted multiple sources about coronavirus. The BBC was the most commonly cited source of information. Many also mentioned social media, most notably Twitter but they were aware that this was often not a reliable source of information and some looked on the WHO website. For a few participants, coronavirus was at least tangentially related to their studies, so it was naturally of interest. This meant that knowledge among these participants sometimes went above and beyond the information generally given to the public, for example about ventilation and reasons for exemption.

In terms of how coronavirus is spread, participants mostly talked about it being airborne and coming from water droplets in the air. There were fewer mentions of coronavirus existing on and being transmitted via surfaces.

“It’s particles from your nose and mouth, sneezing, coughing, speaking, that landing on surfaces and it being touched and transmitted to mouth and nose.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

There were some areas of confusion due to a lack of clarity or perceived contradictions in the COVID-19 guidance

There were two ‘blind spots’ in terms of the COVID-19 guidance among participants, those surrounding sport (for example how many people could take part) and the COVID-19 guidance about self-isolation (for example the length of time needed for self-isolation). Many were surprised to find that the time for self-isolation was not 14 days. In general, the reasons given for not knowing about these were that the COVID-19 guidance was changing a lot and was hard to keep up with.

Certain aspects of the COVID-19 guidance were cited as counter-intuitive or contradictory and therefore difficult to follow. These included being able to have business meetings but not meet friends inside, the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme, and being able to attend pubs as long as food was being served (when there was a high perceived risk of a second wave). In some cases, there was also a lack of clarity over the COVID-19 guidance surrounding travel and what was permitted in terms of moving between tiers.

“To me, the government has really confused the nation [with] the advice being given and makes it very unclear what they can and can’t do.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

Participants also expressed confusion over the tier system in some cases. One participant was in Tier 3 and thought this meant that they were not able to travel at all. Another moved into a different tier when they went home at Christmas and were surprised at the different COVID-19 guidance when stopped by the police in a park. The difficulty could often come from studying in a different country to the family home, for example one participant studying in Cardiff found it difficult to keep abreast of the differences between COVID-19 guidance in Wales and in England, and inadvertently broke the guidance in England by socialising in a park, which had been permitted in Wales at the time.

A few participants felt that the words ‘should’ or ‘avoid’ were ambiguous in terms of what was strictly allowed and what was not. They found that the element of choice made things unclear and felt that it might encourage people to just do what they want.

“I think halfway terms on rules that should be rules makes things hard.”

Male, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

“That is just so unclear… are you allowed or not? is that a ‘no, it’s against the law’, or ‘yes you can’?… it’s giving you an element of choice and if I’m given an element of choice then I will choose.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

Participants mostly responded more positively to simpler, clearer messages from the government. They particularly liked receiving information from posters over other forms of media. Participants were more likely to respond to posters that had clear, specific COVID-19 guidance for example to keep a ‘two metre distance’ rather than advice to ‘make space.’ Printed information such as posters about the COVID-19 guidance was taken more seriously and was more likely to influence participants if it had a government logo on.

Other people can make social distancing difficult and seeing others not follow COVID-19 guidance can be demotivating

One participant reported the difficulty of living with a non-compliant housemate and felt that they were vicariously breaking the COVID-19 guidance by living with somebody who was not respecting social distancing, including meeting people indoors. A few other participants said that they lived in a flat with eight people so it was therefore impossible to limit interactions to a group of six. A few participants were living in the family home so did not share these concerns.

There was a sense from this group that seeing other people break the COVID-19 guidance made it harder to keep to the COVID-19 guidance themselves. This was especially the case in the university environment where many participants reported that widespread socialising was extremely common.

“In October you could hear parties all over the place and nobody was getting caught so you think, ‘why wouldn’t we do that too?’”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, Wales

It is harder to keep to COVID-19 guidance in a university environment due to a perception that coronavirus poses minimal risk to younger people

Meeting in groups larger than six was reported to be commonplace in the university environment, as was meeting inside. Some participants did not follow COVID-19 guidance on social mixing consistently in this environment. These participants reported that they tended to stick to people that they knew, however. Even in a party environment they would only look to mix with people that they knew and would try to limit close proximity (such as hugging) to people that they knew had been tested. There was a widespread sense that the risk was far lower for people their own age. As a result, although behaviours were modified from those seen in ‘normal life’, by mixing in smaller groups than normal, there was still regular breaking of the COVID-19 guidance. This was predominantly in the form of not social distancing, but some participants also reported that they would be less mindful of wearing masks and sanitising in a university setting.

“Age is the main thing I consider. I’m not worried about young people at uni but will try to keep distance from older people because they’re vulnerable. [I] would get tested if [I was] going to be around vulnerable people.”

Male, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

“I don’t mind exposing myself… I think if I got COVID I’d be all right, I feel like I would recover and for that reason I’m happy to put myself in that situations that would be deemed as exposing myself or putting myself at risk.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

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

Participants tended to find it easier to follow COVID-19 guidance when in their family homes, study space or workplace. However, wider life in or around student areas made compliance much more difficult due to the behaviours of others and the temptations to be more social in an environment where the likely severity of consequences of coronavirus seemed lower. Overall, participants appeared to be particularly strongly influenced by the different contexts in which they find themselves (or this influence was more apparent, because of students moving from context to context).

Studying environment is usually conducive to compliance

Some participants referred to their studies when they spoke of work and, because this was something that could be done at home, it made distancing easier and meant that they could avoid public transport. For many, this type of work would be done from home anyway which made it easy to comply with COVID-19 guidance. A few participants spoke of exams and finding it easy to commit to limiting their movements because it was something that they would have been doing anyway.

“It kind of worked in my favour. I knew this year was going to be the busiest year of my life.”

Female, age 25-34 years, student participant, Northern Ireland

Much easier to comply at family home than at university

Many participants that had spent time living in student areas reported that it was very difficult to comply in that context. Reasons for meeting other houses indoors and meeting in groups of larger than six included not feeling that they were putting people at risk because they considered themselves a young and healthy demographic that would not be too adversely affected by COVID-19; not wanting to feel like the odd one out when socialising was so widespread across student areas; and living in a large house where it was not possible to control the actions of housemates and who those housemates invite into the property. In one case a participant reported that a housemate had been regularly sneaking people into the house and that this only came to light months later.

In contrast, participants who spent time at their family home said that it was much easier to follow the COVID-19 guidance. This was usually because the family home was already adhering to the COVID-19 guidance so it was easy to fit into the protocols in place. In the exact opposite to life in student areas, participants reported that it was easier to adhere because everybody else was. Another reason that it was easier to adhere to the COVID-19 guidance at the family home was that participants felt more emotionally supported by their family and therefore were better equipped to live with less of a social life.

“’Because I’m with her (mother), I follow the rules more, because I have respect for her.”

Male, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

“Here [university] no one would bat an eyelid if you’re seen talking to someone outside your household, but back home people would.”

Male, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

Social distancing was the hardest COVID-19 guidance to follow

Participants felt that it could be challenging to observe social distancing at all times, for example, in shops they felt that other shoppers could interfere with their personal space in a way that was almost impossible to stop.

“Everyone is lined up outside and going round the corner but when you go inside [a supermarket] it is like a tsunami of people on top of one another. You try to stick to the guidelines but… you can’t properly do it.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, Northern Ireland

An overriding theme among this group was that they were likely to follow the behaviour of those around them either in adhering to or breaking COVID-19 guidance. In the case of social distancing, this was also extended, in some cases, to establishments as well as people. One example given was the difference between two cafes: one where staff wore masks and there was a tone of following the COVID-19 guidance and one where staff did not wear masks and as a result, customers were less likely to be compliant.

A few participants also mentioned that social distancing when walking could be difficult due to narrow paths or needing to avoid puddles. One also said that they felt social anxiety when moving away from other people who could react negatively to ‘being avoided’ by tutting or making a comment, which made them less inclined to do it on some occasions. One participant reported being on a train and feeling uncomfortable when somebody sat close to them. They felt that they needed to move but wanted to avoid confrontation.

It could also be difficult to socially distance in the gym and avoid being close to people who stop wearing masks once they are exercising. In some instances, participants reported that the cleaning of equipment could also be difficult because wipes or sanitiser were not available.

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

The main motivations for adhering to COVID-19 guidance for participants were to protect vulnerable or elderly people and to get back to normality. There was also a theme of self-motivation among some participants, with their actions being driven by their own perceptions of themselves rather than how they were perceived by others. Demotivating factors included frustration that coronavirus was still at large, a perception that it was getting even worse and perceived contradictory or nonsensical COVID-19 guidance.

To protect the elderly and vulnerable

Participants generally felt a sense of responsibility to protect those for whom coronavirus posed a serious risk. This was mostly with reference to a family member such as an elderly grandparent or parent with a health condition but there was also a desire to protect the vulnerable among the general public.

In some cases, this was spoken of in terms of guilt. These participants didn’t want to feel responsible for passing coronavirus on to their family members, especially the vulnerable ones, but also did not want to be part of the wider problem and responsible for lockdowns needing to go on for longer than necessary.

“I would feel guilty, it’s not the idea of being caught, it’s more like feeling bad contributing to the spread.”

Male, age 18-24 years, student participant, Scotland

Getting back to normal and being able to do things again

The desire for life to return to normal was another common motivation. Some participants expressed a sadness that an exciting and formative period of their life was being blighted by the pandemic and they were desperate to get back to nightclubs and a fuller student experience. Being able to socialise more fully and go on holiday were the main driving factors behind wanting to get back to normality and thus behaving in a way that will facilitate this.

“The more careful we are, the quicker it finishes.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

Sense of self and perception of others

Many participants reported that their behaviour was shaped by context and those around them, and many participants did report that they wanted to be well thought of by others or they wanted to be a positive and influential force. A few others, however, reported proudly that they were not influenced by others and that they were ‘free spirits’ choosing to do what they felt was right rather than what they thought other people expected of them.

“At first I felt like I could get away with not wearing it [a mask], but quite quickly I thought I was getting some funny looks.”

Male, age 25-34 years, student participant, Scotland

“Not bothered by what other people do. I’m a ‘free spirit’ and stick with what I think is right and moral, [I] want to make people feel comfortable but I’ll do my own thing.”

Male, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

Motivation for following COVID-19 guidance depended on how logical or contradictory various aspects of it seemed to be

While participants mostly felt that the COVID-19 guidance was effective, the motivation to follow specific parts of it did depend on how much the participants agreed with the rationale. For example, they were motivated to wear masks and wash hands because they could see the merit and effectiveness in this approach. On the other hand, pubs closing at 10pm rather than 11pm was not logical to them because it did not make sense that coronavirus would be affected by a time frame of one hour. As a result, they were less inclined to go home at that time. Those living in large houses also felt that it was impossible to adhere to the rule of six. As this seemingly had not been considered, they concluded that perhaps this part of the COVID-19 guidance was not well thought through.

The ongoing pandemic was demoralizing, as was seeing other people break COVID-19 guidance

For some, the fact that they were making sacrifices only to see coronavirus still widespread after so long was demotivating and made it hard to keep going. This feeling was amplified by seeing others breaking the COVID-19 guidance and feeling that this was only going to prolong lockdown restrictions.

“I just think, ‘what’s the point, if he’s going to go around doing that? What hope have the rest of us got?’ He could be spreading that to everyone right now and everyone’s efforts would be going to waste.”

Male, age 25-34 years, student participant, Scotland

Fines not seen as a big deterrent

There was a sense that participants were not dissuaded from breaking COVID-19 guidance by fines. Some were aware of fines being handed out but knew that this had not changed the behaviours of their peers. One reason given for this was that any fine could be divided by the people responsible and this was seen as an acceptable risk. Another participant said that they obviously did not want to get a fine but if they felt that they needed to see a friend who was feeling isolated, then it seemed worth incurring for the wellbeing benefit.

There was, however, one participant who had received an official warning and an Anti-Social Behaviour Order from the police. They have curbed all socialising in the house as a result.

Believing things were being exaggerated

Some participants felt that the media was exaggerating the severity of coronavirus or that the government were a bit ‘over the top’ with COVID-19 guidance. In many cases this was because they had not any first or secondhand experience of people having coronavirus and therefore felt it could not be that bad, or they knew people who had COVID-19 but the experience had not been that severe.

“(The government is) trying to make it look more dangerous than it is.”

Male, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

“I think the death toll is being put up. Flu kills a lot people every year … it’s not as bad as the media is portraying.”

Female, age 18-24 years, student participant, England

7. Other influences

Many participants that followed the COVID-19 guidance reported that they listened to scientific experts although in an engaged and questioning way rather than blindly accepting. Their outlook was generally optimistic and those in Scotland and Wales extended this optimism to their governments, whereas the views of participants from England about the government were mixed. They tended to cite as role models either leaders or family members whom they respected for their qualities of leadership or compassion.

Many participants who were more mixed in whether they followed the COVID-19 guidance did not cite a role model. They could be quite critical of the government and in a couple of cases expressed wishes to be living somewhere else, such as Sweden. When it came to scientific experts, they would listen but there were a couple of participants who said they could be more strongly sceptical. One felt that they could sometimes be ‘talking for the sake of talking’ while another reported that a lot of her university work revolved around looking at evidence-based research and being critical of it; therefore when statements are made, she wanted to know what the research behind it was and what evidence they have.

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.