As Quarantine Fatigue Hits, Are We Becoming Complacent About Covid-19?

People are starting to bend the lockdown rules and this is why, say psychologists.

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It’s week six of the UK lockdown and as quarantine fatigue kicks in, it seems the nation’s dedication to following the rules might be waning.

Early lockdown reports showed a drop in car traffic as the country adjusted to social distancing measures, but the latest figures from AA suggest “traffic and breakdowns [are] creeping back up”.

The rise might partially be explained by the police now permitting the public to drive short distances for walks. But anecdotally, people are also reporting a growing sense of indifference towards the government guidelines in their communities.

“I definitely think people are getting a bit more complacent. Even with the way they walk down the pavement, [there’s] a bit less bother over moving out the way,” one person on Twitter told me. “People are walking without gloves or masks, spending longer in parks and chatting in shops. Everything feels more relaxed, which is nice in one way, but worrying in another,” another said.

Although the number of UK hospital deaths from Covid-19 surpassed 20,000 this weekend – and we know the overall national death figure is much higher – the numbers do not appear to be deterring some from bending the rules. So, what’s driving the impulse to “risk it” for a slice of normality?

“We know from myriad other risks that logic and numbers do not play the major role in driving behaviour,” says Helene Joffe, professor of psychology at UCL. Instead, people’s behaviour is often driven by what they see other people doing.

“In psychological terms, social norms play a major role in shaping behaviour. The toilet paper rush is an excellent example of this,” Prof. Joffe explains. “The quantity of media coverage also served to amplify the trend, thereby perpetuating the rush on toilet paper.”

Prof. Joffe thinks we’re now seeing a similar pattern with people leaving their homes for non-essential trips: “We are seeing on our daily exercise outing, and also with the media showing an increasing number of cars on the road, that people are moving out of lockdown and so this feels socially acceptable.”

There’s an “experiential element” to people’s behaviour, she adds, with some people testing how far they can push the restrictions. “As we hear of less cases of the virus in our own social circles, so it seems like the problem has abated.”

Prof. Joffe believes the mixed messages over whether the government will be tightening, extending or lifting the lockdown measures are doing little to help. “Any suggestions that people read in the media – like the idea that one might be able to mix with a few designated households – the ‘bubble’ idea – are taken as a suggestion that this is a good idea,” she says.

Counselling psychologist Dr Chloe Paidoussis-Mitchell points out that some of us might be beginning to push the boundaries of lockdown because the strain is simply becoming too much to bear. “We are a species that thrives in community. Prolonged isolation is a form of psychological torture and our mind struggles with that,” she says. “Very negative feelings such as anxiety, stress, depression and fear are triggered and people feel exhausted by having to cope with it.”

It might seem understandable that people are adapting measures to suit their needs, for instance, by visiting a loved one’s front drive or meeting for a socially distanced chat with friends in the park. But Prof. Joffe worries about where these seemingly small digressions will lead. “I think if this is not reigned in it will spiral,” she says.

So, if you’ve hit the lockdown wall, how can you regain the incentive to follow the rules diligently once more? Dr Paidoussis-Mitchell says most people feel motivated when they remind themselves of the altruistic nature of this choice.

“We can tell ourselves we choose to not go out as opposed to we can’t go out,” she says. “We choose to follow the rules and to remind ourselves of our higher purpose with this – we are choosing the collective good; to shield those more vulnerable than us and the NHS.”

Tuning in to the negative emotions that compel you to flout the rules – and expressing them safely by talking to close friends or family, or writing them down – may also help. And if you’re struggling with not knowing when lockdown will lift, celebrating your daily successes and practising gratitude could help keep you focused.

If you’re following the rules to a T, it can be frustrating to see others veering. But remember, judging others can actually make you feel worse in this situation. You might also be making incorrect assumptions about your neighbours. Instead, try to promote kindness and connect remotely with your community – it’s that sense of shared purpose that will help to keep us all on track.