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Shut Offices And Stop Blaming People For Lockdown Failing, Says Government Scientific Adviser

Shut Offices And Stop Blaming People For Lockdown Failing, Says Government Scientific Adviser

The government has been told to stop accusing the public of non-compliance of lockdown rules by one of its own scientific advisers (PA)

6 min read

A leading scientific adviser to the government has hit out at ministers placing the blame on public non-compliance for high infection rates.

Professor Steven Reicher said instead more offices need to be closed, the definition of key worker made much narrower, and the rules should be “much tougher indoors” to drive down spiraling coronavirus infection rates.

His warning comes amid speculation Boris Johnson will be forced to tighten up the third national lockdown, which is looser than the first one last March, to try and flatten the current coronavirus peak.

A range of measures have been suggested, including shutting nurseries which have remained open despite the blanket closure of schools. There could also be a ban on exercise with someone from another household after suggestions the policy was being used as a loophole by people to still socialise.

But Prof Reicher, who sits on the Sage SPI-B sub-committee, which advises the government on getting people adhere to adhere to Covid interventions, said outdoor exercise rules should not be the focus of further clampdowns.

“At the moment there is far more activity going on than there was last March, April,” he told PoliticsHome. 

“But it’s not because people are badly breaking the rules. It's due to the looseness of the rules, and the lack of support, and I think we could do a lot more.”

The top academic, who works in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at St Andrews University, explained: “People are largely complying but the areas where they're not complying, it's less an issue of people who are not complying out of ill will or because they don't care, but because actually, it's very difficult for them to do so.”

He said “the one glaring exception” is the issue of self-isolation, which although critical in stopping the chain of transmission is practically and financially very difficult. Under current guidance people forced to self-isolate may be able to claim a payment of £500 to cover loss of earnings, which has been criticised as inadequate. 

Prof Reicher said the government should have been asking people all along “how can we help?” improve these sorts of measures, rather than talking tough on cracking down on non-compliance.

“Then if people see the government is on their side, they're far more likely to go along with these things,” he added.

“So I would say that what the government should do is, number one, stop blaming people, number two, that it should start supporting people, and number three, if it did that, then it would be far more likely to establish a partnership with the public and the pandemic response will be far more effective.”

Last week Prof Reicher co-authored an article for the British Medical Journal that argued non-adherence to the regulations has been exaggerated, and today said the blame for that lies solely with ministers.

“All the evidence suggests that the problem doesn't lie with the public, but the difficulty is that there's this very powerful narrative, and it's pushed very much by a number of government ministers,” he explained.

“The 'problem lies with the public, the public aren't doing enough, the public aren't being resilient enough'. That's always been there, because, of course, politicians need a sense of public fragility to justify their own existence.”

He said the “notion of fragility” and the idea of “behavioural fatigue” has been around since even before the first lockdown, and was an “emotional” response rather than being rooted in the science.

"It led us to delay the initial lockdown which probably was one of our greatest ever mistakes, which led to many of the problems that have endured,” Prof Reicher said.

“And what we found afterwards was it wasn't at all true. So when people say ‘oh, well, obviously in the first lockdown’, remember before the first lockdown people were saying exactly the same thing about people not complying. 

“Then when it came to the second lockdown, people said ‘oh, but this time we won't comply’. But by and large, they did comply. 

“Then we come to the third lockdown, and we hear the same old story - the public are the problem. Actually, when you look at the evidence, it's precisely the opposite.”

He said the real problem lies with muddled rules, pointing to the recent flip-flop on schools: “So you will remember that last week, we had the fiasco that on Sunday, we were told that schools are no doubt safe. 

“On Monday we closed the schools. On Tuesday there was guidance from the Department for Education of the category of critical workers whose children could go to school. 

“And that was drawn so broadly that on Wednesday and Thursday at many schools, over half the roll was in. And then on Friday they changed it. 

“The point is, that showed if you define the rules loosely enough it renders the whole thing pointless, and although they've changed the rules around children of key workers, those critical workers are still going to work. 

“And in fact, in many cases, whether people like it or not, they have to go to work, because if you're put in that category, then you can't say, I'm not going to work, it's not safe. If you do that, you lose your job.”

Prof Reicher said his own wife, who works in the NHS, had phoned him this morning to say she was stuck in a traffic jam because the roads were much busier than expected due to the numbers of people still leaving home to go to work.

As well as making sure fewer people are forced to go into work, Prof Reicher said mask-wearing and social distancing should be stepped up for those who are still going in.

But on the furore about people going for a walk with a coffee and a friend he said this was much less of an issue.

“So I would be much tougher indoors, but I think we could be more a bit more relaxed outdoors”, he said.

With cleaners and tradespeople still allowed into people’s houses, along with estate agents, when it comes to altering the rules he said the real question now is: “What is essential?”

Of the guidance from the DfE on key workers Prof Reicher said: “It was bonkers, quite frankly. Basically what it was trying to do was face both ways, at the same time to appease those who were saying ‘oh, no, don't close things down’, but to be seen to close things down. 

“If you try and face both ways, and you have a contradictory policy, it's pointless.”

He added: “Remember when we talked about schools, when everybody would say ‘schools are our first priority’, that they must be last to close and first to open?

“I think unfortunately, schools do have to close because all the evidence suggests that you can't get the R rate down to below one without closing schools. 

“But the point is that we're keeping all sorts of things open. It's not true that schools are last to close and why the hell have we closed schools, if we keeping all these other things open, what's more important?”

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