Masks rule change could leave most cautious Lancashire residents "not going anywhere", says behavioural expert

Society’s settled position on the future of social distancing and mask-wearing could be determined by what the majority of people decide to do in immediate response to the measures becoming voluntary.

Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 9:05 am
Updated Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 10:28 pm

That was the assessment of a Preston-based expert in human behaviour as the Prime Minister announced that almost all mandatory Covid restrictions are likely to be lifted in England on 19th July.

However, Sarita Robinson says that there will nevertheless be a period during which two distinct groups emerge whose reactions to the perceived risk of removing face coverings and no longer keeping a distance will be markedly different.

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Lancashire advised to stick with masks and social distancing beyond 19th July
Dr. Sarita Robinson

Dr. Robinson, deputy head of the school of psychology and computer science at the University of Central Lancashire, believes that the changes outlined on Monday, which will not be confirmed until next week, will initially create “a real dichotomy” depending on people’s experience of the past 15 months – and their own willingness to accept risk.

“Your objective risk of how likely you are to die of Covid might be quite small, but you might have quite a lot of health anxiety and fear getting ill, or you might know people who have died of Covid – so that will make you much more anxious than someone who has sailed through the pandemic relatively unscathed.

“The differences in how people will feel about coming out of lockdown are going to be quite marked.

“From a psychological point of view, we also tend to go with what the group norm is – so what we see other people doing is the behaviour we adopt [ourselves].

“I went into a meeting recently and there were another ten people there, all socially-distanced – but they had taken their masks off. I started feeling really self-conscious and so I took my mask off, too.

“I didn’t want to, but I was just conforming to what everybody else had done. It just goes to show that it’s really difficult to be the odd one out – and that’s one of the problems with guidance and leaving [decisions] down to the individual,” Dr. Robinson explains.

While the days appear numbered for national regulations relating to face coverings and social distancing, Lancashire’s director public health Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi told the Local Democracy Reporting Service he would be recommending that the county’s residents continue adhering to both of those “basics” until at least 90 percent of the eligible population has been double jabbed.

Boris Johnson said that government guidance would indicate where people “might choose” to wear a mask, such as on crowded public transport.

Dr. Robinson acknowledges that ministers are having to perform “a really fine balancing act” and that there is a “role for personal responsibility” in the route out of the pandemic.

However, she says that under a voluntary system of infection control measures, the personal choice of some people to exercise their rediscovered freedoms could end up compelling others to restrict themselves in their daily life.

“To get people back onto public transport, for instance, we need them to feel safe – and one of the ways to do that is through people wearing masks, because it is a very visual clue that people are being cautious and so you’re not at risk in that environment.

“Whereas if you have people who are not [covering their face and] social distancing, some people who have a higher level of anxiety might continue to avoid public transport.

“So you could have the ultra-cautious not going anywhere – and a group that goes out into the world without a care.”

Dr. Robinson says that the messaging from Public Health England that has been issued during the course of pandemic “cannot be faulted” – and has laid the groundwork to inform the personal decisions that Lancashire residents are likely to face in less than a fortnight.

However, she claims that the government could have taken a more cautious approach in the signals it has sent out about the likely end of legal restrictions on 19th July. While the Prime Minister did not utter the word “irreversible” in relation to the planned changes, Dr. Robinson says that it is important for officials to be “realistic” about the possibility of some measures having to be reimposed – and to convey that message to the public.

“We know that the road out of a pandemic – which we are well along now – is bumpy. The minute that we say it’s all sunshine and rainbows is where we get into trouble – we saw that with the delay to lifting the lockdown last month and we then had to reset expectations.

“I’m quite confident that the UK population is going to make some sensible choices – although sometimes we almost like a rule, because we can hide behind it.”