Washing hands, covering faces and keeping two metres apart (“hands, face, space”) became a way of life during the coronavirus pandemic. And during lockdowns, so did keeping away from friends and loved ones.

In a study, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) sought to understand what influences people to follow the guidance or not, and how this differs between social backgrounds – students, young people, ethnic minorities, parents with dependent children, high income workers and low-income workers. We commissioned IFF Research to interview 180 people between 23 December 2020 and 22 January 2021, 90 of whom also kept diaries.

On the whole, people's compliance was high but there were some factors that led to some participants not complying, which we explore below. From fear of the virus and a desire to protect the vulnerable, to concerns about their mental health and confusion about what they should and should not do, several factors influenced how people followed the guidance. The challenge is also reflected in data from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) from 7 to 31 January 2021.

Some people did not understand why they could not meet friends and family indoors – “It’s a calculated risk”

Guidance on mixing with friends and family, which has changed at different stages of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, was something some of the people interviewed struggled with. While many were aware of the need to wash hands, cover their faces indoors in public, and keep their distance from others, some did not see why they could not meet friends and family indoors at home.

Social distancing goes out of the window when we meet up. We may as well hug, we've been sitting next to each other for two hours.

Female, 18 to 24 years, young person, England

The Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) data from January 2021 show that, among all adults that have met up with people indoors or outdoors, outside of their support bubble or household, 90% said they always or often maintained social distancing. This fell to 74% among young people (aged 18 to 24 years), 83% among ethnic minority groups and 86% among those on low incomes (£8,700 a year or less).

There was high compliance across all the groups for wearing face coverings, with an average of 96% of all adults that had left their home in the past seven days saying they used them. The lowest compliance with face coverings appeared to be among 18-to 24-year-olds at 93%. Among those who left home in the past seven days, young people also appeared to be the least likely to say they always or often washed their hands after returning home, at 84% compared with an average for all adults of 90%.

Estimates in the OPN are provided from a sample survey. Confidence intervals are included in the datasets to present the sampling variability, and comparisons should be made with caution.

Young people, aged 18 to 24 years, appeared to be the least likely to say they always or often maintained social distancing

Percentage of adults washing hands after returning home, using face coverings and maintaining social distancing, Great Britain, 7 to 31 January 2021

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Notes
  1. Questions: In the past seven days, when you have met up with people outside your household or support bubble, how often have you maintained social distancing?; How often did you wash your hands with soap and water straight away after returning home from a public place?; Have you used a face covering when outside your home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19)?
  2. Base: adults, aged 18 years and over who left their home in the past seven days (for handwashing and face coverings) and those who have met up with someone outside their household or support bubble, inside or outside (for social distancing).
  3. Not all response categories are shown on this chart.

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We are only seeing people within our friendship group… For us it was a calculated risk.

Female, 18 to 24 years, young person, Northern Ireland

Some people questioned why the guidance at certain times allowed people to be in pubs and shops but did not allow families to mix in homes. They therefore concluded meeting with friends was “safe enough”, even though it was not permitted.

Data from the OPN show that compliance with the guidance on physical contact was high across all social groups. However, among those who left their home in the past seven days, a lower percentage of young people (aged 18 to 24 years) and ethnic minority groups (both 89%) avoided physical contact when outside their home, compared to 93% of all adults.

In all groups, around 9 out of 10 people avoided physical contact with others when outside their home

Percentage of adults avoiding physical contact, Great Britain, 7 to 31 January 2021

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Notes
  1. Question: In the past seven days, have you avoided physical contact with others when outside your home?
  2. Base: adults, aged 18 years and over, who left their home in the past seven days.
  3. Not all response categories are shown on this chart.

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I am not going to socially distance from my family and if they come over, I am not going to have them standing outside.

Female, 45 to 49 years, ethnic minority participant, England

Mental well-being – “She needs visits from family”

Some students and young people were concerned about the effects on their mental well-being of not being able to socialise, while many parents were worried about the effect of lockdown on their children.

Data from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) for 13 to 17 January 2021 show a higher percentage of those aged 16 to 29 years (70%) reported that their well-being was affected by the pandemic compared with other age groups (62%, 48% and 39% of those aged 30 to 49 years, 50 to 69 years and 70 years and over, respectively).

Separate analysis has also shown places with younger populations or higher rates of unemployment tended to have higher rates of loneliness.

I am lonely on my own.

Female, 45 to 49 years, low-income worker, England

She [mother-in-law] needs it [visits from family] for her mental health.

Female, 40 to 44 years, high-income worker, England

According to the OPN, the proportion of adults meeting up outdoors has increased since the end of January 2021, with 31% saying they had done so in the week ending 28 March 2021. The proportion of adults meeting other people indoors was around 10%, which is similar to the level at the end of January. However, changes to the questions in the latest period may have contributed to the proportion changes seen between 24 and 28 March 2021 and should be treated with caution.

No eight-year-old or five-year-old should be locked indoors away from their friends.

Male, 35 to 39 years, parent, Wales

Most parents were interviewed before schools were told to return to remote learning for the latest national lockdown in January 2021. However, many of them recalled their experiences during the spring 2020 lockdown. When schools closed to most pupils (except vulnerable children or the children of keyworkers), data from the OPN showed many of them felt it was affecting their children’s wellbeing as well as their own.

Protecting the vulnerable – “I don’t want it to go to my family”

Fear of passing on the virus, especially to the vulnerable, motivated many participants to follow the guidance. Many saw it as the way back to being able to see family and friends again.

I wouldn't want to pass it on. That's what keeps me motivated, the fact that I don't want it to go to any of my family.

Female, 40 to 44 years, parent, Scotland

I know I am healthy to fight it if I get it, although I know my parents will struggle if they were to catch it.

Male, 18 to 24 years, young person, England

According to data from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN), 86% of adults said they had avoided contact with older people or other vulnerable people because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shortly after the third national lockdown began (7 to 10 January 2021). This has since fallen to 77% of adults between 24 and 28 March 2021.

Some participants were demotivated from following the guidance when they thought others, including friends and peers or those in the public eye, were not following the guidance. This was felt across all groups.

I did think for a bit, well if he can do what he wants, why can’t I? But you flush that thought away and realise you don’t want to be like that.

Male, 35 to 39 years, parent, Scotland

Scepticism about the guidance and virus – “The numbers don’t stack up”

A few participants did not trust the seriousness of the coronavirus, or questioned the effectiveness of the coronavirus guidance, particularly those from ethnic minority groups and those on low incomes.

Do I think there is something dangerous out there? I think the numbers don't stack up.

Male, 40 to 44 years, ethnic minority participant, England

Some of these findings are similar to those recorded by the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) during January 2021. Overall, 30% of adults reported they did not have enough information about government plans to manage the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This rose to 46% of those aged 18 to 24 years and those aged 25 to 34 years, and 35% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Among the different income groups the highest income group (£36,500 a year or more) were the most likely to say they did not have enough information about government plans to manage the pandemic (36%).

Adults aged under 35 years, in the high income group and from ethnic minority backgrounds were the most likely to say they did not have enough information about government plans

Percentage of adults by whether they had enough information about government plans to manage the coronavirus pandemic, Great Britain, 7 to 31 January 2021

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Notes
  1. Question: Do you feel like you have enough information about government plans to manage the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic?
  2. Base: adults, aged 18 years and over.
  3. Not all response categories are shown on this chart.

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I try to avoid meeting up with my friends. Some people don’t care – they are still going out and getting together. Some people still doubt the virus, they believe it is not real.

Female, 40 to 44 years, ethnic minority participant, Scotland

Seeing non-compliance as low-risk – “I’d be all right”

Many students felt that the virus was not a threat in their university environment. Some knew people who had had the coronavirus (COVID-19) but not been seriously affected. They concluded they would recover easily if they caught it and saw no harm in attending parties or mixing in groups.

I think if I got COVID I'd be all right.

Male, 18 to 24 years, student, England

Students, many of whom felt they were "missing out" on the university experience, said their compliance with the guidance differed depending on where they were. At home, with their families, they were more careful to follow guidance than on campus.

Here [university] no one would bat an eyelid if you're seen talking to someone outside your household, but back home people would.

Male, 18 to 24 years, student, England

According to data from the Student COVID Insights Study (SCIS), from January 2021, university students reported a lower level of life satisfaction than the general population. Between 8 and 18 January 2021, the average life satisfaction score for students was 4.6 out of 10. This has since risen to 5.2 between 12 and 22 March 2021. A similar trend was seen for the adult population, with life satisfaction increasing from an average of 6.4 out of 10 between 7 and 10 January 2021 to 6.8 between 10 and 14 March 2021.

University students reported a lower level of life satisfaction than the general adult population

Average ratings of life satisfaction, feeling that the things done in life are worthwhile, happiness and anxiety for students and the adult population, English universities and Great Britain, January 2021

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Notes:
  1. Estimates for “all students” are calculated from the Student COVID-19 Insights Survey (SCIS) between 8 January 2021 and 18 January 2021, and represent students studying at English universities.
  2. Estimates for the “adult population” are calculated from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (COVID-19 module) between 7 January 2021 and 10 January 2021 and represent the Great British population for adults aged 16 years and over.
  3. Please note that these two surveys have different data collection methods, therefore should not be compared directly but can be considered in reference to each other.
  4. The error bars show 95% confidence intervals highlighting the degree of uncertainty around an estimate. Non-overlapping confidence intervals suggest a statistically significant difference between groups.
  5. The statistics presented are Experimental Statistics, so care needs to be taken when interpreting them. This survey has a relatively small sample size and low response rate. While this has been weighted and is comparable with previous findings, this has an impact on the level of certainty of this research.

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Vaccines – “It doesn’t make sense to change behaviour”

While the rollout of coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines meant a few participants could see a day when restrictions would end, many believed they would stay in place, and many said it would not change their behaviour when it came to following the guidance.

Data from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) show that 28% of people thought it would take more than a year for life to return to normal in the week ending 28 March 2021. This compares with 25% who thought it would take this long when surveyed between 13 and 17 January 2021, around the same time as the interviews took place. The percentage fell to 20% in late February and early March before rising again.

I keep saying to my kids, with any luck, the end is in sight.

Female, 45 to 49 years, high-income participant, Wales

Everyone wants to get back to normal, so you do your bit.

Male, 18 to 24 years, low-income worker, England

Nearly 3 in 10 (28%) adults reported feeling it will take more than a year for life to return to normal

Adults in Great Britain, March 2020 to March 2021

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Notes:

  1. Question: How long do you think it will be before your life returns to normal?
  2. Base: all adults, aged 16 years and over.
  3. Response categories of “7 to 12 months”, “Never”, “Not sure” and "Prefer not to say" are not shown on this chart.

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I think I saw you can still carry it and pass it on even if you have been vaccinated. It doesn’t make sense to change behaviour.

Male, 18 to 24 years, low-income worker, England

There were concerns from some of the people in the study about the vaccines, with some undecided about having them, and a few saying they would refuse them. Data from the OPN show vaccine hesitancy is highest in younger people. Between 13 January and 7 February 2021, 17% of people aged 16 to 29 years expressed hesitancy about having a vaccine, compared with 1% of those aged 70 years and over. The percentage of those aged 16 to 29 years reporting vaccine hesitancy decreased to 12% between 17 February and 14 March 2021 but there was still hesitancy among some groups, including young people, Black or Black British groups, and those living in the most deprived areas.

I know a certain percentage won't have it. It will be a gradual thing - for a few years we will have to follow a certain amount of rules.

Female, 40 to 44 years, ethnic minority participant, England

There are years and years that go into creating vaccines and I think this one has been a bit rushed through.

Male, 35 to 39 years, parent, Wales

The over-80s are really the guinea pigs. I’m happy to wait until next year.

Female, 55 to 59 years, ethnic minority participant, England

A few individuals had concerns about the safety of the vaccine but weighed this against the benefits of being able to return to their old lifestyle, deciding on balance they would probably have it.

It has gone through and been tested very fast in comparison to other jabs and medications … I think I would have it.

Female, 18 to 24 years, young person, Wales

About this article

This article is drawn from a qualitative analysis, intended to understand participants’ circumstances, attitudes and behaviour, rather than to be “representative” or measure the incidence of attitudes or behaviours. The term “many” is used when a view or behaviour is fairly widespread within a particular group of participants and “few” indicates findings applied only to a handful. “Some” indicates a middle ground between “many” and “few”.

We have included data from the weekly Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) from 7 to 31 January, around the time that the interviews took place, to provide context for the quotes from interviewees. This analysis of compliance indicators was provided by age, ethnicity, income and parental status.

Footnotes


Income

The study defined high-income participants as those with an annual household income of £47,000 a year after tax. The OPN's highest income bracket is an individual's income of £36,500 a year or more before tax. For low-income workers, the study defines this as a household income of £18,000 a year after tax, while the OPN’s lowest income bracket was an individual who had an income of £8,700 a year or less before tax. Personal annual gross income is self-reported on the OPN survey and therefore should be treated with caution. A respondent’s income information does not represent equivalised household income, which takes into account all income from all household members, and adjusts for that fact that households with more people will need a higher income to achieve the same standard of living as households with fewer members.

Parental status

A parent in the study is defined as someone who was a parent or legal guardian of one or more children aged under 16 years, while in the OPN data an adult is defined as a parent if they are the parent of a dependent child living in their household. This includes children and stepchildren. A dependent child is someone under the age of 16 years or someone who is aged 16 to 18 years, has never been married and is in full-time education.

Ethnicity

The ethnicity disaggregation used has been chosen to provide the most granular breakdown possible, while producing robust estimates based on sample sizes, in line with the Government Statistical Service Ethnicity Harmonised standard.

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