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No, Britain isn't facing a plague of 'Covidiots'

Nurses are distancing themselves socially as they line up for donated lunches, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in London, Britain, March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez 
Nurses socially distancing while queueing for lunch in London

Shaming the tiny number of lockdown rule-breakers makes them seem more numerous than they are

Is Britain afflicted by millions of “Covidiots”? Listen to the campaign of shame being mounted against all those people apparently defying the lockdown and the answer is surely yes. In parks up and down the land people are recklessly congregating with friends. Workplaces are packed with employees wheezing their way into the office in defiance of that pesky cough. On every front, conscientious objectors in the corona war are undermining our national defence. Or so we are told.

All the evidence suggests that this is an absurd caricature. And, worse than merely painting us in a bad light, talking Britons down in this way is only likely to make the efforts to defeat coronavirus tougher.

If a recent YouGov poll showing that 93 per cent of people back the Government’s strategy is to be believed then those wilfully defying the rules are nothing but a tiny minority. It would be wrong to accept uncritically such an extraordinary figure, but it doesn’t seem wildly out of kilter with what is happening.

I know of nobody whose job can reasonably be done from home who has insisted on going in anyway. More tellingly, I know plenty who have lost jobs as businesses accept their (hopefully temporary) fate and shut down. That such closures have been mandated with virtually no backlash, all in the name of a virus that seems to afflict many people mildly, is to my mind both astonishing and laudable. 

No less astonishing has been the reaction of business owners. For every Tim Martin, Mike Ashley or Richard Branson whose actions have amounted to a PR disaster, there have been countless companies – from corner shops to multinationals – that have made real sacrifices to provide for their staff and support their communities. 

All of this stands as evidence of a nation pulling together from top to bottom. For every delinquent deliberately coughing on a police officer, think of all the grandparents who celebrated Mothering Sunday at the end of a phone. For every small gathering in a park, think of the commitment of somebody like Scott Sneddon, who went viral after moving out of his house because his daughter has cancer and is at risk.

Choosing to overlook these eminent success stories – as both ministers and armchair hand-wringers have done – in favour of lazily heaping opprobrium on the tiny number of rebels risks seriously backfiring. 

At the moment, the challenge for the Government is communicating the new rules and encouraging people to start following them. But as the days turn into weeks, the difficulty will be getting us to stick with it. To achieve that, it is vital that we all feel like we’re in it together.

We humans are happiest, by and large, when we’re going along with the crowd. It is uncomfortable being the odd one out; even the contrarians among us have experienced it. Just think of any time you’ve turned down a beer at lunch because everybody else at the table chose a soft drink.

That impulse has been backed up in various ways by social scientists. In one classic experiment from the 1950s, a very high proportion of participants were willing to give the wrong answer to a simple question if it meant agreeing with a set of stooges who had deliberately answered it incorrectly before them. More recently, studies have shown that one especially effective way of influencing behaviour is to tell people that a large percentage of those around them are already doing something similar. Think back on that poll I quoted earlier. If only 30 per cent of Brits supported the Government, how would that make you feel about staying indoors all day?

Herein lies the great mistake with the shaming strategy. A 100 per cent lockdown is too impractical ever to be enforced fully. Given that some dissenters are inevitable, fixating on them only makes them seem more significant. Let the idea take hold that everybody else is out on a jolly and those of us at home feel like fools. 

The bullying nature of this approach also risks triggering our instinct to kick back. The state of lockdown sits uneasily with the British people. The more we feel forced into it, the greater the temptation to stick two fingers up to the “little Hitlers” in charge. 

It would be far better to focus on the at-home majority and how together we are making a real difference.