Covid: Many young people 'will remain cautious' after England's July 19 lockdown easing

Credit: PA
  • Words by ITV News Multimedia Producer Ann Yip

Although young people are more keen to go out and party, there are substantial numbers who remain worried about England's so-called 'Freedom Day' reopening, a behaviour psychologist has told ITV News.

Despite scenes of packed nightclubs and snaking queues outside clubs in the early hours of Monday, Robin Goodwin, a professor at Warwick University who has been studying people's anxieties and behaviours during the Covid-19 pandemic, said: "It's not a case of young people, all of them, are saying 'hooray'.

"There are substantial numbers who are very concerned still."

The psychologist, who has also worked on swine flu and avian flu epidemics in China and Malaysia in the past, believes there will be a drop in social distancing and work from home approach, and more social contact between people, but said "there will still be quite a lot of caution by a proportion of the population".

Prof Goodwin also said he is worried the relaxing of restrictions that happened on Monday could create or widen divisions in society.

'It's not a case of young people, all of them, are saying 'hooray''

About 56% of adults are worried about the ending of coronavirus rules on Monday, according to the Office for National Statistics' (ONS) Opinions and Lifestyle Survey published on Friday. In the 16-29 age group, the proportion is 43%.

About 60% of adults said they would still avoid crowded places. For the 16-29 age group, nearly half said the same.

When it came to mask-wearing, more than 60% of adults said they would continue to wear face coverings in shops and public transport. A little more than half of young people aged 16 to 29 said the same.

People - including young, healthy people - may be worried for themselves and for other people, says behaviour psychologist Prof Goodwin

Prof Goodwin explained what people may be anxious about: "I think when people are worried, they don’t worry for themselves versus worrying for other people. I think people often have a combination of concerns.

"I think a younger person may realise that their own chance of dying from the disease is much less than someone who is much older but they may be worried about Long Covid for themselves, they may be worried about infecting other people that they care for and older people perhaps that they know."

He added that headlines about rising cases and criticism from the scientific community over Monday's reopening will naturally filter through to the general population, who will respond by acting more cautiously.

England's reopening could cause divisions in society, Prof Goodwin explains

The professor said one concern he had as a psychologist is the risk of divisions in society as a result of the reopening.

He explained: "Not just vulnerable people feeling that in some ways they’ve been ignored, but also young people who may be worried about going out and partying and may be feeling very strong social pressure from their peers to do those things.

"It may be that elderly people feel divided from younger people because of assumptions that younger people are the ones who just want to go and party and are going to be the ones causing the problems."

Dr Angela Rodrigues, senior lecturer in health psychology at Northumbria University, also pointed to the spectrum of opinion on England's July 19 reopening and said people's approach "will vary depending on how people have been affected by Covid-19".

Coronavirus: What you need to know - How can clinically vulnerable people be protected after 'Freedom Day'?

She continued: "People suffering from Long Covid, clinically vulnerable or who have lost someone to the virus will probably feel anxious about the July 19 reopening.

"For these people, the lifting of restrictions will further restrict them as they have been told to stay at home and not to mix in order to protect themselves and loved ones. However, this might not be feasible if you have work commitments and school-aged children.

"On the other hand, people suffering from mental health, experiencing financial hardship or at increased risk of domestic violence will probably want restrictions lifted.

"For the young sector of our population and those not fully vaccinated yet, there are growing concerns over the prospect of more cases of Long Covid among the young during the coming months."

The lecturer called on everyone to "empathise with each other as we move forward".

Both experts agreed messaging around the reopening has not been clear and could lead to confusion among the public.

Dr Rodrigues said: “People have been using lockdown policies as a cue for behaviour, with those, they understand the severity of Covid-19. The pandemic is not over yet and the current message to end all restrictions will lead to confusion in the population."

Although the legal requirement to wear face masks in shops and indoor business settings has been scrapped in England as of July 19, government guidance states people will still be "expected" to wear masks in crowded, enclosed spaces.

'We're getting really confusing messages about face mask wearing'

Prof Goodwin said: "We know, as psychologists, you have to have clear, consistent, believable trustworthy messaging and that’s really not happened.

"It’s not happened a lot during the pandemic and it certainly hasn’t happened now where we’re getting really confusing messages about face mask wearing."

He also warned businesses that think they will lose footfall by putting in place face mask rules could be mistaken, and some could lose customers by having a "free-for-all".

Speaking about the extent that rules shape people's behaviour in the pandemic, he said: "If you’ve got very clear messaging about 'these are the regulations, this is what we’re going to accept' and you ideally do this from the government rather than relying on individual companies to take the burden of that, then it will have a much bigger effect.

A billboard in Manchester promoting the guidelines on wearing masks Credit: Peter Byrne/PA

"And if a (business) is not enforcing regulations around that then I’m sure it’s not going to take very long for people to start discounting it.

"So a lot of our behaviour is influenced not just by our own values and our own perceptions of threat but by what the regulations are."

He added: "We do pick up our cues on how to behave from other people around us. And in social situations where there’s any ambiguity, we quickly pick up the social mood.

"That’s why the regulations are so important because it makes sure that enough people around you are keeping the rules to encourage those who are not sure or are ambiguous about the situation to also keep their mask on."

A government spokesperson said: “As the Prime Minister has said, it is right to move forward with step 4, but it is vital that everyone continues to be cautious, respects those around them and most importantly gets the vaccine.

“This is about striking a balance between giving people back their freedoms while continuing to manage the spread of the virus as best we can. 

“This includes reducing vaccine dosing intervals from 12 to 8 weeks for all adults, and the continuation of our test, trace and isolate system, which is slowing the rise in cases and helping to protect the NHS as we unlock.”