VSvid is alive and kicking. About 2.3 million people are infected with the virus in the UK, including as many as one in 18 in Scotland. There are more than 10,000 Covid patients in hospital. These infections are increasing the burden on the NHS and contributing to the staff shortages that are already causing chaos in airports and elsewhere. And that’s before we even consider deaths and long Covid.
Yet our government talks and acts as if Covid is dead and gone. The health secretary, Savid Javid, claims that we are in a post-pandemic phase. The prime minister insists that sky-high infections are no cause for concern (and indeed that Covid is so trivial that he hasn’t even bothered to think about the issue “for a while”). The government’s own website recommends wearing masks in enclosed crowded spaces (as do other agencies such as the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control), but ministers and MPs conspicuously fail to wear masks in spaces such as the House of Commons.
It’s not just the government acting as if it’s all over. So is the public. The huge crowds at the jubilee, at Glastonbury and now at Wimbledon show that, for many, life has returned to normal. This is corroborated by official figures. The Office for National Statistics says that the proportion of people who report wearing masks in public spaces fell from 57% in May to 38% in June. Mask wearing on public transport declined sharply in the same period.
This is hardly surprising. Evidence from this pandemic and others shows that people take precautions only when they perceive a risk. When we are told by those in charge that there is no risk any more, we naturally believe there is no reason to take precautions any more. But we still need to ask: a risk to whom? The common-sense answer is risk to oneself. Aim the evidence tells a different story. From early on in the pandemic it became clear that a sense of risk to the community was a critical factor in whether people followed Covid measures. And indeed, our own unpublished data shows that adherence to these measures is linked more to communal risk than to personal risk.
In other words, most people wear masks and follow other precautions to keep their community safe, especially its more vulnerable members. Our reasons for following these measures are more about social than personal responsibility. The government’s recent and relentless emphasis on the personal has chipped away at this communal sense of concern and undermined our belief that caution is necessary.
Our behavior isn’t just determined by what we believe about risk. It is also affected by what we think others believe. If we think our personal attitudes go against social norms – especially the norms of people like ourselves – then social norms generally play a bigger role in shaping our behavior than personal attitudes. This can create a number of paradoxes. If our actions are determined by our beliefs about others, then we can all end up doing something that virtually no one believes in. During the pandemic, for instance, people believed that others rejected the rules far more than they actually did. This led people to break the rules themselves, even if they believed in them. And these violations in turn became evidence that others rejected the rules – creating a vicious spiral.
Our political leaders – the government, its advisers and the opposition – are critical in breaking this spiral. A key dimension of good leadership is the ability to bring people together, to help them realize that their concern for the safety of their community is shared by others, and to feel empowered to act on this.
However, one of the main reasons people aren’t wearing masks has nothing to do with masks at all. We resent being told what to do by others, and tend to respond by reasserting our autonomy. This becomes even more acute when we believe this is a matter of “us” and “them”. That is precisely what has happened with Covid, and more specifically with masks. We live in a populist age, which divides society into “the people” and “the elite”, and where some believe the elite (or establishment) is seeking to control the people.
According to this worldview, the government and its experts have introduced Covid measures on the pretext of protecting us, but they are actually trying to control us. If this is true of Covid measures in general, it is particularly true of masks, portrayed as a potent symbol of control: they are muzzles. What people are rejecting, then, is less the mask and more the political and scientific establishment that proposes it.
Providing evidence about the risks of Covid and the effectiveness of masks will do little to restore disbelievers’ faith in the measure. After all, if the problem lies with the establishment, you are just as likely to reject its evidence about masks as its recommendation to wear one. Rather, the key lies in creating a relationship of trust between those who propose Covid measures and those for whom they are proposed. As with vaccines, this is a matter of community engagement: working with different groups to show how measures are something done for them (not to them). With trades unionists, for instance, protective measures are part of taking health and safety at work seriously. For those who are religious, they are about loving your neighbour.
Rebuilding trust between politicians, scientists and the public is critical to dealing with the current crisis. But it is equally important for the future. Early on in the Covid period there was much talk of learning lessons and of “building back better”. As time has gone on and our leaders have made a general effort to forget the pandemic (and deny its ongoing reality), this has been forgotten. It is as if we want to erase the fact that Covid ever happened. Those who deny history are condemned to repeat past mistakes. Acting as if it’s all over not only leaves us exposed and helpless in the present. It also makes us exposed and helpless next time.
Stephen Reicher is a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioral science. He is a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an authority on crowd psychology