While vaccine candidates undergo clinical trials or await regulatory body approval, non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) aimed at reducing the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative pathogen for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, has been the dominant approach of most countries around the world.
These NPIs have mostly entailed government-led behavioral changes, such as social distancing measures, travel restrictions, masks wearing, and enhanced hygiene procedures (like hand sanitization and device disinfection protocols).
Many previous studies across the globe have examined population compliance levels with these measures. Adding to this research, scientists at University College London (UCL) surveyed 21,000 adults living in the United Kingdom to gauge the national population’s compliance level. They found that compliance in the UK with pandemic control measures had decreased as the stringency of lockdown measures eased over the course of this year (2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic first emerged in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019. Since then, it has spread to 190 countries and infected more than 55 million people.
During the peak of the virus’s first wave, many countries resorted to nationwide lockdowns. However, due to the social and economic pressures associated with these tight regulatory measures, many governments began to lift some restrictions to ease the economic damage done.
For the past several months, people in many countries were allowed to leave their homes more freely, and businesses and schools began to reopen. However, in light of these relaxations, many countries have reported a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, hinting that a global second wave is upon us. Some countries – like the UK, Italy and Belgium – have reinstated a national lockdown to try and ebb the rising tide of cases as they wait for a reliable vaccine to be produced.
The study, which has appeared on the preprint medRxiv* server, highlights the importance of adhering to health protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic. The team aimed to determine who among the national population are more likely to comply with these protocols, and if they would be less likely to adhere if restrictions were lifted.
The team used the data from the UCL COVID-19 Social Study, a weekly panel of adults in the United Kingdom from the first five months of lockdown. They studied the extent to which factors such as personality traits, social motivation, living environment, demographic, and socioeconomic status could predict the chance of compliance over the pandemic’s duration.
What the study found
The study findings revealed that compliance with control measures in the UK had decreased as the stringency of measures were reduced before a second lockdown was reinstated. The study thus highlights the importance of reinforced messaging on compliance, since easing restrictions may lead to public perceptions that these basic health protocols are not important or no longer needed.
Further findings suggest that some people may not be responsive to certain types of communication. The team suggests using a variety of communication approaches to reach more people of all ages.
Lastly, the team found that people living in overcrowded residences and neighborhoods with little space had lower and faster-decreasing compliance. This suggests that poor quality housing and crowded environments could worsen the challenges for governments in controlling the pandemic.
However, they also found that people with higher incomes had higher initial compliance, but they had faster decreases over time.
“It is possible that these individuals were able to maintain a strict compliance initially due to not facing any financial barriers such as an inability to pay bills that may have driven to rules being broken in a search for work,” the team explained.
“However, as the pandemic continued, greater wealth and a sense of privilege or a lack of financial fear over fines may have driven a more relaxed approach to compliance,” they added.
Weighted weekly average compliance with recommended preventative behaviors in the UK, 01 April – 31 August. Source: YouGov COVID-19 Public Monitor. Statistics are from YouGov, 2020.
The researchers emphasize that it is essential for health agencies and governments to highlight the importance of consistent application of pandemic control policies and mitigation practices across all groups to help reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
The global toll
More than 55 million have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, and at least 1.32 million have died. The United States remains the nation with the highest number of cases, reaching 11.2 million, while India follows behind with over 8.87 million cases confirmed.
In the UK, there have more than 1.37 million confirmed cases and a staggering 52,240 deaths.
medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.