Covid: Public may downplay coronavirus threat after lifting of restrictions, psychologists warn

'Freedom day' for England on July 19 may lead to people downplaying the threat of Covid. Credit: PA

People are likely to take the dangers of Covid-19 less seriously and ignore public health guidance after restrictions are finally lifted, according to a new study.

Psychologists believe lockdowns during the pandemic successfully convinced the public of the severity of the Covid-19 threat if their government was prepared to impose such severe measures.

The findings could mean that scrapping restrictions leads to people ignoring any remaining guidance which could include things like wearing face masks in crowded places or washing hands regularly and for longer periods of time.

The study, based on two surveys during 2020 and published on Wednesday in the Royal Society Open Science journal, found members of the public in the UK judged the threat of Covid “via the magnitude of the policy response” from the government.

Lead author Dr Colin Foad, from Cardiff University, said: “Surprisingly, we found that people judge the severity of the Covid-19 threat based on the fact the government imposed a lockdown – in other words, they thought ‘it must be bad if government’s taking such drastic measures’.

“We also found that the more they judged the risk in this way, the more they supported lockdown.

“This suggests that if and when ‘freedom day’ comes and restrictions are lifted, people may downplay the threat of Covid."

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Boris Johnson has said England’s Covid restrictions are likely to be torn up on July 19 on what has been dubbed the country’s “freedom day”, while all but a handful of rules will be ditched in Scotland after August 9.

Restrictions in Northern Ireland are expected to be reviewed on July 9, while an announcement on rules in Wales is expected on July 14.

Lockdown rules in England: What's changing from July 19

What has happened to social distancing and the rule of six?

The 'one metre plus' rule has been scrapped entirely, as of July 19 in England. However, some guidance to maintain social distancing in certain situations will remain in place of the legal restrictions.

Social distancing guidance will continue if someone is Covid positive and self-isolating, or in airports, or other ports of entry, to avoid travellers arriving from amber or red-list countries mixing with those from green list areas.

Limits on social contact in England have disappeared, meaning the end of the rule of six indoors and the limit of 30 people for outdoor gatherings.

Do I still need to wear a face mask?

There is now no legal requirements to wear face coverings - but guidance still encourages using masks in some settings, including hospitals, healthcare settings and in crowded enclosed public spaces.

Has the working from home guidance changed?

The guidance on working from home has gone. It's ultimately down to employers to decide whether to keep staff at home or in the office, but the government say employers are able to plan the return of staff to the workplace.

What about weddings and funerals?

The current limits on numbers of people who can attend weddings, funerals and other life events has ended.

What's happening in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The changes to Covid rules announced by Boris Johnson, only impact England and will not change regulations in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland.

The Welsh Government “would like to move together” with other parts of the UK in lifting coronavirus restrictions but will only do so if it is “right for Wales”, health minister Eluned Morgan said on Monday 5 July.

As of July 19, restrictions in Scotland have eased, with all areas of the country moving to level 0. The government is aiming to lift all major restrictions in Scotland by August 9.

In Northern Ireland, some significant restrictions have already been eased including allowing the resumption of live music and the lifting of caps on organised outdoor gatherings.

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Dr Foad said the research, which was also supported by the University of Bath and the University of Essex, found people’s support for restrictions was not based on the sense of threat to themselves or their families, but to “the country as a whole”.

“In order to try and keep public support for lockdowns high, various strategies have been tried by the government, including reminding people that they and their loved ones are at risk from Covid-19,” he said.

“However, we find that most people’s personal sense of threat does not relate to their support for restrictions”.