The attitudes and behaviours of young people during the pandemic

1. Main points

  • Many participants from the young people group felt that social mixing rules were confusing because of changes around where you could meet and with how many people. This was coupled with some questioning the motives behind social mixing guidance, for instance, allowing people to mix in business settings (for example shops and pubs) but families not being able to mix in homes. Some therefore concluded that meeting with friends was ‘safe enough’ if other indoor mixing with strangers was permitted.
  • Many participants had not complied with social mixing guidance on a few occasions during the pandemic. They were commonly motivated to see others because they felt they were missing out on their social life and that continuing to not see friends, family or partners would have a negative impact on their mental wellbeing.
  • An underlying assumption amongst some participants was that coronavirus (COVID-19) posed less of a risk to them because they were young. Very few participants knew anyone who had had coronavirus so they concluded that it was unlikely that they would catch They also tended to have taken steps to reduce their contact with strangers but were sometimes continuing to meet up with friends. This often involved making assessments of which friends were safe to meet (for example, friends they felt they could trust in terms of behaving responsibly).
  • Many participants had a good awareness off, and complied with the coronavirus (COVID-19) government guidance around hand washing and sanitising and wearing a mask but were not aware of viral load building indoors.

A full profile of the young people who were 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

The pandemic had a significant impact on participants’ lives, their work, their social life, their education experience, and their future plans. Life during COVID-19 was described as boring, monotonous, frustrating, challenging, constricted and claustrophobic with some feeling ‘life has been put on pause.’ Some participants had moved back in with their parents, often with other siblings, and many noted a drastic change in socialising.

Examples of life changing for young people

For example, one participant who had trained in a profession had quit her job in 2019 with the view of going travelling in 2020. She had taken on temporary work in a different sector but had been put on furlough.

One young person was studying overseas and came back to the UK to be with his parents. The young person was still able to attend online classes, although for him these were in the afternoon and evening due to the time difference. One young person lived in an overcrowded flat with her family and had taken on additional responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic such as taking family members to work and preparing meals. These increased responsibilities negatively impacted her life, for example reducing her own free time and having less sleep.

These young people had adapted to the changes in their lives, yet there was a sense of being ‘fed up’ and feeling fatigued with the ongoing restrictions, which did not appear to be ending anytime soon.

Loss of social life felt among young people

Socialising had been a big part of many participants lives. Participants typically reported a varied and active social life pre-pandemic, including after work drinks with friends or colleagues and participation in sports teams or attending the gym. Weekends were generally spent meeting with friends and family, trips to restaurants, playing sports, and nights out to bars, pubs, or nightclubs.

Participants felt that how they spent their weekends had changed the most. They noticed more acutely what they were missing out on at weekends, than on weekdays, which were filled with work or study.

“I have missed the treats and spices of everyday life.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

Some participants mentioned that they had enjoyed going for walks with their parents and spending more time with them than they usually would. They acknowledged they were lucky to have good relationships with their parents and this was not the same for everyone.

Restricted social mixing was particularly difficult for young people recently bereaved or with mental health issues

A few of the participants interviewed had experienced recent family bereavements (not related to COVID-19). These participants found it difficult to not be around family during their grieving process.  In instances of grandparents passing away, these participants felt it was important to be with their surviving grandparent, and as soon as COVID-19 guidance allowed they formed a support bubble (extended household) with them. Despite forming a support bubble, they still took care to minimise close contact when indoors, for example maintaining a physical distance and not hugging, as they recognised their older relatives were more vulnerable to COVID-19. These participants understood that COVID-19 spreads more easily in spaces where there is close contact among people.

Many participants did not disclose specific mental health issues but spoke generally about the toll that the spring 2020 and early 2021 lockdowns had had on their mental wellbeing, such as spending a lot of time inside and not seeing friends. The detrimental effect of not seeing friends on mental wellbeing was often the main reason cited as to why participants behaved in a non-compliant way by socialising with people outside of their support bubble or household. This young person was discussing the options for Christmas:

“I would still see my family and friends as I believe mental health is equally important as physical health. And suicide is on the rise, nobody should be alone near Christmas!”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

A few, however, did discuss the pandemic in the context of specific mental health conditions. For example, at the start of the Spring 2020 lockdown, a young person with anxiety found the restrictions on meeting up with others stressful and worsened her anxiety, leading her to increase the use of medication to help her cope. Once she was able to, she formed a support bubble with a friend and this helped her to reduce her anxiety.

Young people identified some positive elements to have come out of lockdowns

While the 2020 and early 2021 lockdowns and COVID-19 guidance meant that life was restricted in many ways for the participants interviewed, some were able to reflect on the positives of the situation. For example, some participants reported they had spent more time exercising, either building a new routine, or exercising more consistently.

The slower pace of life and fewer social engagements meant that participants had more spare time. Some participants reported embracing spending quality time with their family at home, which they had not done prior to lockdown.

3. Behaviour in relation to COVID-19

Participants were able to adopt many aspects of the COVID-19 guidance with relative ease and incorporate them into their daily lives. Many participants considered handwashing, wearing face coverings, and maintaining distance from strangers mostly easy to do, even habitual:

“It is not even in my head anymore I just do it … keys, wallet and mask and when I see someone it is two metres now.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, Wales

Not meeting with friends and family was more challenging for many of the participants interviewed, with some having flexed the COVID-19 guidance about how many people outside of their household they meet, where they meet (indoors vs. outdoors) and the distance they kept when meeting up with people. The majority of participants were interviewed before the third lockdown starting on December 28th 2020 in Wales and January 5th 2021 in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Hand washing and sanitising

All the participants interviewed understood the COVID-19 guidance to wash or sanitise their hands regularly throughout the day, and many did so with ease, for example when coming home from work or the supermarket and before eating. Many participants already felt they had a good level of hand hygiene with some taking additional steps to prevent the chances of them catching or spreading COVID-19, for example, carrying their own hand sanitiser to use when out of the house or keeping a bottle in their car. A few participants admitted to probably not washing their hands often enough, and a few forgot the 20 seconds guidance, but it was something they had heard of.

Those participants working from their workplace (not at home) reported that there were hand sanitiser stations and this helped them to comply with the hand hygiene guidance.

Additional hygiene strategies

A few participants said they had used additional hygiene strategies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. For example, one young person quarantined food brought home from the supermarket for 24 hours before handling it.

A few participants reported wearing gloves when out shopping or at petrol stations; one young person said gloves made him feel ‘invincible’, and followed this by saying:

“I wouldn’t dream of getting out of the car without gloves on … I think how many people are [using a petrol pump] every day and how many households do they see? If it takes me another thirty seconds to put gloves on, I will do it.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

Participants mentioned avoiding touching things in public such as public transport rails or poles. For example, one young person who had COVID-19 in the summer was worried this was where he caught it, so was extra vigilant on public transport. Another participant was vigilant around touching posts and washed their hands after they touched any.

Wearing a mask

Compliance with wearing a face covering was very high and many participants accepted that it had become ‘the norm.’ Exceptions to wearing masks in indoor public spaces were experienced as being ‘odd’:

“If you’re not wearing a mask, you’re the weird one.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

Many participants agreed that wearing a mask protects yourself and others from catching and spreading COVID-19.

Participants had taken measures to ensure they always had a mask with them, for example having spares in their car or pocket. Participants often reported arriving at the shops without a mask to hand but returning home or to their car to get one.

There was a general sense amongst many young people that this was not a difficult piece of COVID-19 guidance to follow, despite it sometimes being uncomfortable. A few participants found masks uncomfortable, for example glasses wearers or those with sensitive skin, but persisted with wearing them when required. Only one young person interviewed decided not to wear a face covering when in public indoor spaces and where it was mandatory. They felt that the timing of the COVID-19 guidance around masks being introduced and the high levels of infection since showed that masks could not be effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19.

Social distancing

Social distancing among strangers was regarded by participants as something important to do to stop the spread of COVID-19. Many participants took steps to limit their interactions with strangers when outside of the house, for example altering their grocery shopping habits so that they went during quieter times. They also spoke about trying to avoid crowds, for example by visiting the gym during quieter times or moving across the street when walking towards a stranger. Others had altered their use of public transport, either limiting it where possible or stopping it entirely and instead walking, cycling or driving. Although many participants tried to maintain social distance with strangers, they sometimes found others were not strict in following the rules, for example other customers getting too close in shops, or not following the one-way system.

Some participants noted that their workspace had been re-designed to limit interactions between colleagues, for example through the introduction of one-way walking routes and modification of desk positions to create more space among employees.

Making space was less common when participants met up with people that they knew. Some reported knowingly being closer than two metres or hugging their friends. This was especially common after the lifting of the Spring 2020 lockdown.

“Social distancing goes out of the window when we meet up. We may as well hug, we’ve been sitting next to each other for two hours!”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

Meeting with others

All participants interviewed had taken significant steps to reduce their contact with other people outside of their household that they did not know. However, some of them at some point had gone against COVID-19 guidance and met with friends or family, for example meeting inside when this was not permitted, meeting in groups larger than six or getting closer than two metres, for example, hugging or walking close to each other.

This was often the element of COVID-19 guidance which otherwise compliant participants did not follow strictly. Among those meeting friends, family members and partners, the need to socialise and its positive impact on wellbeing was prioritised over any potential risk of catching or spreading COVID-19:

“If I was just considering physical health, I’d not see friends or travel, but for mental health, I wanted to [meet friends].”

 Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

Some participants noted having been more social and having met up with larger groups over the summer, when the Spring 2020 lockdown had ended and transmission numbers were lower.

There was one example of a participant who admitted making double bookings at neighbouring tables for two groups of six at restaurants,  to allow a larger group to meet. The fact that this young person was able to circumnavigate the booking restrictions in this way was taken as evidence to him that it was acceptable to continue to socialise, despite the COVID-19 guidance prohibiting this.

Another participant provided a different example of having knowledge of COVID-19 guidance and making their own judgement on how to behave:

“No bars are open unless a meal is bought so me and my friends will host garden parties… We weighed up the option of sitting in a bar with loads of other people or exceeding the six-person limit and meeting outside in a garden. In our heads we are only seeing people within our friendship group…for us it was calculated risk.”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person, Northern Ireland

Some participants also met with extended family members, such as grandparents or cousins or partners despite being outside of their household or support bubble. Extra care was taken when meeting with elderly relatives.

One participant was very nervous seeing strangers in shops without masks and was highly concerned about the spread of COVID-19, however continued to meet up with their partner as the Spring 2020 lockdown was too difficult apart and they did not want to feel that way again. This was a common scenario; otherwise compliant participants were able to follow most COVID-19 guidance with ease, however prolonged periods of time away from friends, partners and family felt very difficult. Some participants described doing a bit of ‘screening’ of which friends to meet. For example, some mentioned only keeping in touch with a smaller group of close friends, who they felt they could trust in terms of behaving responsibly. Others described having a ‘friend bubble’; a small group of friends who only saw each other, therefore limiting the risk associated with meeting up.

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

Participants generally had good awareness of the COVID-19 guidance although in some areas were lacking detail. There was particular uncertainty over support bubbles and self-isolation periods, attributed to COVID-19 guidance changing regularly. Most had a good understanding of COVID-19 and how it spreads via airborne particles and via surfaces, however participants rarely mentioned viral load in unventilated spaces and the need for airflow indoors.

Some participants reported keeping themselves informed about developments in COVID-19 related news, guidance or statistics, either through government websites, newspapers or in some cases social media. Some also reported having spent far more time reading about COVID-19 guidance and watching developments (for example daily briefings) at the beginning of the pandemic and that they now paid less attention to it. A few participants found the news about COVID-19 depressing and overwhelming and reduced their engagement with it as a result.

Printed information, such as posters in town centres about the COVID-19 guidance, were thought to be most effective when it covered all three ‘Hands, Face, Space’ elements of the guidance, as all three were viewed as equally important. Information that was more specific was reported to be easier to understand, for example repeating the advice about keeping a ‘two metre distance’ was better than advice to ‘make space.’

Participants who were mainly non-compliant did not appear to find the COVID-19 guidance difficult to understand, nor was it a case of not seeing this guidance regularly. It was more a case that they were sceptical of the COVID-19 guidance ‘working’ or they did not want to give up freedoms (for example socialising for their mental wellbeing).

Good awareness of guidance but lacking in detail in some cases

While participants were generally able to cite the COVID-19 guidance unprompted, particularly the need to wear masks, sanitise hands and to social distance, there were some gaps in knowledge when it came to specifics. One example was when to keep one metre as opposed to two metres apart. Understanding of self-isolation guidance in the case of exposure was also relatively low with the 10-day self-isolation period (reduced from 14) coming as a surprise to many. Some were unsure what role testing played in self-isolation. Only a few had experienced COVID-19 symptoms and all self-isolated.

Many participants felt the COVID-19 guidance was easier to understand during national lockdown periods and described the tier systems and changes to group size or locations allowed for meeting as confusing. Some felt these ‘leave room for interpretation’.

“…but god knows what a bubble is, it seems to change every week.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

Mixed awareness of how COVID-19 spreads

All participants were aware that COVID-19 could be transmitted by airborne particles. When talking about airborne particles, many participants focused on things such as coughing and sneezing, and only a few specifically mentioning how the viral load could build in indoor and unventilated spaces.

Participants had some awareness of transmission on surfaces. For example, one young person used the example of someone coughing into their hand and then later pressing a button on a pedestrian crossing.

There were a few who were unsure exactly how contagious COVID-19 was, with one participant (who was less compliant) believing that COVID-19 was less contagious than other diseases such as Norovirus.

A feeling that COVID-19 was only really a risk to older people

Many participants believed COVID-19 to be of low risk to themselves, but a serious risk to older or more vulnerable individuals. Not many participants mentioned knowing others their age who had caught COVID-19. A few had experienced COVID-19 themselves and not felt too ill or knew others their age who had caught it and not been seriously unwell. Some had read that older people or those with health issues were more likely to have serious effects. One young person felt it was not as ‘deadly’ as the media or government suggested and did not know anyone their age who had caught it, even those who had not taken precautions. This participant followed the COVID-19 guidance less, based on this belief.

More compliant participants mentioned a sense of responsibility towards older or more vulnerable people as a reason for following the COVID-19 guidance strictly.

I know I wouldn’t want anyone going near my grandparents so if I see an older person, I subconsciously think they are more vulnerable so I will not go near.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

Widespread confusion over support bubbles and meeting socially leading to judgement calls

Many participants were uncertain about the formation of support bubbles and the COVID-19 guidance around being able to meet people, including where people were able to meet. These participants commented that the COVID-19 guidance in this area seemed to change often and that it was hard to keep up. A common result of this was that people used their own judgment when it came to forming support bubbles and socialising. In one case, a participant regularly saw her boyfriend because she assumed that would count as a support bubble, another young person mixed frequently with neighbours to support them with childcare. Another attended an outdoor event in the summer with 30 people. They were unsure whether the limit was meant to be six but decided to go and maintain social distance while there, in a way that they thought was safe. There was a general sense of not keeping up with the changes, especially during the Tier system, and not understanding why the changes had been made.

“I feel negative because the rules change and contradict each other a lot. It feels like the government don’t know what is best to do so are just throwing in a rule every now and then to seem like they are doing something.”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person, Wales

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

Work environment enabled, and could encourage, compliance

Many participants worked in professions that took COVID-19 compliance very seriously. Participants generally trusted their employer and took the guidance seriously:

“That is what I have been told to do at work and if that is what I am being told it must work.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, Wales

These participants felt that the practices learned from their workplace became routine and they found it easy to continue them in their personal lives. This was especially the case for participants whose friends worked in similar fields and also carried their practices home from work.

As well as the provision of materials and practical elements of enabling employee compliance, such as sufficient space to work while distancing and access to hand washing and sanitising stations, participants noted that a culture of compliance was also created which made it easier to comply. For example, one young person who worked with children said that he was representing his place of work throughout his working days and to not wear a mask or to be seen to be non-compliant would reflect badly on his employer’s reputation.

Supported and encouraged by family

Many of the more compliant participants reported their families also followed the COVID-19 guidance. This made it easier for them to comply; with one participant describing his mother’s behaviour as the ‘benchmark’ for his own. This meant compliant behaviour became ‘inbuilt’ in their homes; and routines were based around reducing the spread of COVID-19. Several participants were explicit in not wanting to disobey their parents or to disappoint their family.

“It becomes easier to follow advice when you live with someone who wants to adhere to the rules.”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person, Northern Ireland

Whilst many participants reported that their friends were also compliant, a few reported that their friends would try to convince them to break the COVID-19 guidance. This would involve meeting in larger groups than advised or meeting inside when not permitted. Sometimes participants went along with their friends as they did not want to miss out. There were, on the other hand, also examples of participants who did not seem influenced by their friends’ non-compliance. One young person reported feeling upset at missing out when they rejected their friends’ offers to socialise, to follow the COVID-19 guidance, but ultimately, they said they were encouraged to comply because they saw the ‘bigger picture’ about COVID-19.

Relationships with family members could also undermine compliant behaviour, such as meeting up with grandparents because of concerns that they were otherwise very isolated and a fear that their time together would be limited. In another case, a young person felt they needed to break the COVID-19 guidance to offer support to an extended family member, suffering from a severe mental health condition brought on by the pandemic.

“I think there’s some circumstances where you put COVID aside just for a minute, you just need to see each other and have human contact.”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

One young person’s grandparent encouraged her to break the COVID-19 guidance. Their grandparent’s attitude was that life was too short to not spend their final years in close physical contact with their grandchildren. The participant’s attitude was that it was ok to see a limited number of close people, because “humans need social interaction.”

The home environment was conducive to compliance

Many participants were in their family home and found that they had ample space to live and in some cases work, meaning they could remain in a controlled environment in relative comfort. For a few this was combined with living in a rural area where it was easier to socially distance and to be able to spend time outside to support physical and mental wellbeing.

Outside of the home and workplace, opportunity depends on the establishment and other people

When outside of the home and workplace, the set-up or attitude of an establishment had a big part to play in the opportunities for participants to comply. There were reports that churches and supermarkets in particular had some good protocols in place that were variably enforced, such as one-way systems and only allowing entry with a mask. Participants reported that over time, social distancing had become less prevalent and enforced in shops, and people were no longer following signage or queuing outdoors.

Some participants reported the COVID-19 guidance was very well enforced in hospitality venues, but other participants reported venues that were more relaxed. Sometimes this meant other people may not be wearing masks or respecting social distancing, meaning that participants felt they were not being compliant by proxy. In addition, when the COVID-19 guidance in England did not allow people from different households to mix indoors in pubs, a few participants pretended they lived with friends, to be seated together indoors. A reason given for this was a lack of enforcement in the pubs. One young person had experienced a pub actively encouraging them to break the COVID-19 guidance:

“I was with my mum and [other family members], we don’t live together and were looking to sit outside but the bar person approached and said, ‘you look like a family, come inside’!”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

This lack of enforcement of COVID-19 guidance in shops and in hospitality was a source of annoyance for more compliant participants, as they too wanted to socialise with friends but did not see themselves as people who disobeyed rules.

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

Many participants were motivated to follow the COVID-19 guidance by the desire to protect others, both as family members and simply as fellow citizens. Some participants also took the threat of COVID-19 seriously enough to want to protect themselves. Participants were also motivated by the idea of adherence to the COVID-19 guidance bringing about the end to restrictions, as well as ‘wanting to do the right thing.’

Many participants reported demotivating factors including the impact on mental health and wellbeing from a lack of social contact and frustrations from seeing others ‘enjoying’ breaching the COVID-19 guidance (for example by meeting up with friends). Other reasons given were the perceived poor handling of the crisis by the government and feeling that their own behaviours were not making a difference.

Perceived threat of COVID-19 to themselves and family members

Many young people did not fear the impact of COVID-19 on their own health but were very aware of the threat to older family members and more vulnerable people generally. Many participants felt a sense of responsibility towards this group of people.

“If I went against it [the advice] then it would make me feel very guilty…we owe the older generation of society, to stay safe and not pass it on to them.”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person,  Scotland

Some participants were less motivated to social distance and follow the COVID-19 guidance among their friends than around their grandparents. This could contribute to ‘forgetting’ about COVID-19. One participant said that when they see an older or vulnerable person it serves as a reminder that the coronavirus was at large and could be damaging to some people, while another said that when they see their friends, things ‘feel normal again.’ The result of this was that social distancing was not adhered to as consistently, when amongst friends. This sentiment was less common during national lockdowns, or in periods of tighter restrictions (for example the Spring 2020 lockdown and the Winter 2020 restrictions).

However, as many were living with their family, in most cases because of the pandemic, they were acutely aware of being in close contact or in a household with older parents or grandparents. The potential seriousness of COVID-19 for these older family members motivated participants to reduce their social contact significantly. For example, one participant was very aware that, as she worked with other people and her mother worked as a carer, if either of them did get COVID-19 they would spread it quickly. This encouraged the young person to follow the COVID-19 guidance, to reduce the chances of this happening.

Whilst protecting the elderly was a motivator for many participants, a few had experienced situations in which they felt the elderly were not fully complying with COVID-19 guidance. Whilst no one reported that this stopped themselves from following the COVID-19 guidance, it was noted as a frustration, especially as young people felt they were protecting elderly people by limiting their own freedoms.

Perceived risk of contracting COVID-19

Along with worrying about their family and older relatives, some young people’s motivation was affected by the extent to which they perceived COVID-19 to be a risk to themselves. This was often a motivator for non-compliant behaviour. For example, a few participants said they did not know many people who had caught COVID-19 and took this as evidence that it did not spread as easily as initially thought.

“I don’t really believe the hype about it…. I’ve worked all the way through, I’ve not even had a COVID-19 scare once. I don’t know anybody that’s had it”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

Another, on the other hand, used the example of parents of a friend who were particularly compliant but still caught COVID-19, as evidence that catching it was almost inevitable and that therefore some of the behaviours were not worth the effort.

Doing the right thing

Some participants spoke of wanting to do the right thing, to contribute and to do their part for society. For these participants, there was a sense that they had a ‘civic duty’, courtesy and responsibility to society to do their bit to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“I think it is just a matter of keeping everybody as safe as we can. It is very different to normal life and a struggle, but … I don’t want to put anyone at risk… and know that I am doing the right thing by not going out.”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person, Wales

Getting back to normal

Some participants showed an overriding desire for the world to get ‘back to normal’ and this was a strong motivating factor to follow COVID-19 guidance.

“If we all followed the rules, we’d be out of lockdown quicker.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

A few participants interviewed in November 2020 expressed a fear that there would be a third lockdown if people did not adhere to the COVID-19 guidance over the Christmas 2020 period. This was something that they were very keen to avoid. There was also an appreciation of some of the things that were currently available at the time of interview, such as gyms being open and sport being available, and a desire not to lose these freedoms by letting COVID-19 spread.

On the other hand, the idea that restrictions could continue for a prolonged period was hugely demotivating for some participants. Having been restricted socially for the majority of 2020, the idea of having to sustain that for a longer period of time and not being able to make future plans was inconceivable to some, who felt that they would end up breaking guidance to rebuild a social life. These participants felt restrictions had been going on for a long time and felt that because of this they were no longer as careful as they had been in the Spring 2020 lockdown.

‘I’m getting weary of it and giving up on it a little, the government keep extending it and I feel like giving up. I’m probably not as careful as I was at the start.”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person, Northern Ireland

Having the respect of family, peers, employers and the wider public

Many participants said that they were motivated by the opinions of other people and being judged. This was often from family who were compliant and whose respect mattered to them. In one case, a young person reported that if their grandparents were able to be compliant despite their age and the difficulties this brought, then participants had no excuse to not comply.

Others were concerned more widely with how they were perceived, not wanting friends or colleagues to know if they broke COVID-19 guidance.  Some liked to project a good self-image to strangers and did not like the thought of creating a bad impression in public, even if they did not agree with or understand the COVID-19 guidance.

“I just don’t do it [break the rules] because I don’t want people to think I’m breaking the rules for no reason.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

People not adhering to guidance was demotivating

Many participants felt everyone had a responsibility to help end the pandemic by making sacrifices and this sense of it being a shared experience was a motivating factor. A demotivating factor on the other hand was seeing other people breaking COVID-19 guidance. This could be peers or could be seen in news stories or social media posts depicting parties and raves. For some, the response to seeing these was ‘why bother’, if other people were breaking COVID-19 guidance so COVID-19 spreads, then there was no point in depriving oneself of a social life.

“Seeing people in the pub and stuff, makes you feel like, ‘why are you going to all this effort?’”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

Whilst there was a negative sentiment towards people who broke COVID-19 guidance, very few participants were so affected by other people behaving in non-compliant ways that they were conscious of it affecting their compliance. There was more a sense of resentment and feeling let down by others’ behaviour and wishing they could do the same.

Linked to this was a frustration at seeing friends in areas of lower restriction. A jealousy had set in for some and though the reasons were understood, there was a feeling of unfairness and of missing out.

Poor handling of the pandemic and the fact that cases were still rising

Many participants were dissatisfied with how the government had handled the pandemic, particularly among those living in England. Participants felt demoralised to be in tiers and be giving up what they described as important parts of their life, only to see the infection rates continue to rise. Some participants described the government ‘going round in circles’ with COVID-19 guidance, allowing people freedoms and then restricting them as COVID-19 got worse. Eat Out to Help Out (the government scheme to encourage people to use cafés and restaurants during summer 2020) was cited as an example of this. One young person felt the outcome of rising cases after this scheme was ‘inevitable.’

“You’re telling us to eat out, then you’re telling us to stay home, you’re just messing us around. I think that’s what put a lot of people off it, why most people stopped following it.”

Male, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

Several participants were unhappy with public figures allegedly breaking COVID-19 guidance and not being punished by the government and saw this as another way the government had not handled the pandemic well.

‘Extra variables’ and shifting guidance were confusing and demotivating

Behaviours that were seen as logical and intuitive were felt to be easy to follow, such as handwashing (washing away the germs) and face masks (containing COVID-19). Participants were more likely to make a judgement call or follow their gut (that is to make a decision based on their own ideas and opinions) in terms of what felt ‘safe enough’ when there were more variables at play and where the advice had changed over time. This was particularly the case with socializing. For example, the rule of six and whether they could meet indoors or outdoors were seen as confusing and as adding too many variables to the decision.

“The numbers of people meeting never made sense in my opinion…you could have 30 at a funeral but only 15 at weddings and only six in an enclosed back garden? If I listened to the advice, either my mum, my dad, brother, or sister would have to miss out on seeing me even though they’re in the same household as each other. A lot of it did not make sense to me.”

Female, age 18 to 24 years, young person, England

Similarly, when one young person was made aware of the COVID-19 guidance around ventilated spaces, they reacted negatively and thought this added too many layers of complication to the decision-making process.

The perceived complexity of decisions about behaviour meant that for many participants, lockdown was felt to be easier to navigate than the tier system. This feeling of confusion made a few participants question the motives behind COVID-19 guidance, or question whether it was working, which became a demotivating factor for following the COVID-19 guidance.

Being able to do more things makes compliance easier to achieve

Although some felt that the tier system was confusing and hard to follow, others felt that when more activities were available, such as gyms and coffeeshops (for takeaway), this helped. For these participants, having some opportunities to get out of the house and break up the day or week made giving up other activities more bearable.

7. Other influences

Many participants had good relationships with parents, teachers and the police, suggesting a good relationship with authority figures. This was the case among those who followed the COVID-19 guidance more, and those who followed it less. Among those who followed the COVID-19 guidance more, there was mostly a sense of trust in scientific experts.  A few mainly compliant participants were sceptical of scientific experts due to changing COVID-19 guidance, making them question these scientists’ evidence. Those who followed the COVID-19 guidance less were more wary and critical of the scientific evidence that was being presented with one saying that the term ‘expert’ was overused and another believing that lies have been presented and that some evidence is being hidden.

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.