What did the public really think about lockdown law?

We spent the pandemic studying the public’s response to Covid regulations. Five lessons stand out

September 20, 2022
Dmytro Varavin / Alamy Stock Photo
Dmytro Varavin / Alamy Stock Photo

The early months of 2020 were extraordinary. The UK was coming to terms with the grave public health threat posed by Covid-19. By March, to avoid hundreds of thousands of deaths and the NHS becoming overwhelmed, it was deemed necessary that some form of national lockdown would be required. By the end of that month, the entire population was living under arguably the most stringent restrictions on freedom in UK history.

There was much debate among the commentariat about the role of law in lockdown—something which only accelerated with the stories of parties in No 10. But we wanted to understand what the general public thought about lockdown laws and how they responded to them. We wanted to understand this not only because law was used suddenly to restrict the everyday, routine activities of the entire population but also because ensuring compliance with these new laws was high stakes in terms of public health. We also knew this would be a one-off opportunity to learn how to do things better in future crises.

So, in 2020, we set out to engage with the public. We completed three representative national surveys, collected more than 100,000 words of focus group contributions, and undertook 50 hours of detailed interviews. Here are our five most important findings.

First, most of the public were generally willing to comply strictly with the lockdown restrictions. Parts of the population “bent” rules on occasion and rates of compliance also diminished over time. But, if assessed in terms of its ability to secure public compliance, lockdown was a policy that was strikingly successful.

Second, while the public started with a high level of understanding of lockdown restrictions, confusion grew as rules became more complex. Perhaps most importantly, there was extensive confusion relating to the legal status of specific rules—was something law or just guidance? This confusion had real implications for how people behaved: people were more likely to comply with a lockdown rule if they thought it had the status of law and was not just guidance.

Third, there were three key drivers of compliance with lockdown law: an anticipation that rule-breaking would be met with disapproval from one’s peers; the conviction that breaking lockdown rules was morally wrong; and a general commitment to being law-abiding. People’s sense of the effectiveness of the rules in preventing virus transmission was linked to these basic drivers, as was their sense of obligation to others, and their predictions of how seriously Covid-19 would affect their health if they were infected. A small minority had a conviction that restrictions unacceptably infringed their basic rights, and this group were notably less concerned with the morality of breaking lockdown laws.

Fourth, we also found that what we have come to call “creative non-compliance” was widely evident in public behaviour. That is, there was vast evidence of people caring more about the “spirit” of the lockdown restrictions than their “letter.” As a result, this meant many were comfortable breaking the rules if they felt they were still abiding by the underlying purpose of the restrictions. This is the opposite of what we tend to imagine about people trying to find their way around legal rules—rather than using technical loopholes to avoid the burden of compliance, they actively sought to comply with the essence of the rule to work around the letter of it.

Finally, the experience of and response to lockdown laws was strikingly different between genders. We ran detailed analysis on a range of demographics and the most salient point that emerged was that women were more likely to breach certain types of law, and that these behaviours were clearly linked to specific laws themselves clashing with gender inequalities, such as caring responsibilities. This was clearly reflected in the type of laws they were breaking or bending.

Given what we found, could the government have done things better? There are certainly points to reflect upon here about how we use the law as a tool during public health crises. More thought should have been given to whether a rule was put in law or guidance, and how that legal status was communicated. It is not just some formality—the failure to clearly delineate between the two shaped behaviour. More generally, government communications should better align with the reasons people have for complying—and indeed not complying—with lockdown laws. And certainly more thought could have been given to the pressures faced by different groups in society, particularly but not only women, when the rules were drafted. While the restrictions were initially drafted quickly, there was time for adjustments to make them fairer.