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'Social disapproval can be a good deterrent': The battle to ensure compliance with guidelines over Christmas

Research shows people’s main concern is about the health of their families and friends making it unlikely they will choose to put them at risk.

Image: RollingNews.ie

Updated Fri 9:04 AM

IN ONE WEEK’S time the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) will issue advice to the government about whether Ireland can ease Level 5 restrictions and how it should be done.

Health officials have been asking the public, particularly this week, not to focus too much on changing levels or on what the restriction may be at Christmas, but people are eager to know whether they will be able to spend time with their families and friends and what kinds of activities they may be able to do together.

On Monday, deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn acknowledged that the recent uptick in case numbers may be down to people being “tired of listening to the messages”. 

As we approach the Christmas period, the clarity of those messages and the public’s understanding of them will be important if the country is to avoid another surge in case numbers at the start of 2021, according to Dr Deirdre Robinson, researcher in the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit. 

“It’s possible that people are tired of hearing the messages, it has been a long year and it would be understandable, but the data doesn’t really suggest that people are fatigued with the measures,” she told TheJournal.ie.

In the latest Amárach public opinion tracker published today, 66% of people said they believe the government’s reaction to the outbreak is appropriate, 20% believe current restrictions don’t go far enough and just 14% think the current approach is too extreme.

“The vast majority say they are complying with the guidelines and, importantly, think that other people are too,” Robinson said.

“It’s not fully clear what is leading to the recent rise in cases, so we might be at a stage where a more detailed picture of what kinds of activities people are engaging in day-to-day would be useful, including compliant and non-compliant behaviour.

She said compliance with the public health measures over Christmas will “depend on good quality, clear communications”.

“Everybody in Ireland is hyper aware of the virus and people have adapted their behaviours accordingly, it’s been amazing over the last nine months.

“We know from the Amarách tracker consistently the top worry for people is the health of their family and friends, followed by the health system being overloaded.

“If you think about that in terms of meeting friends and friends over Christmas, people will change their behaviour.”

She said certain activities that are generally related to Christmas may increase risk, particularly if alcohol is involved as it “loosens people’s inhibitions”.

“Christmas is an important time for a lot of people and I imagine there could be some flexibility in people’s behaviour around the guidelines, though it depends on what the guidelines are,” she said.

Ensuring people do Christmas safely this year can not just be about telling them what they should not do, she said, but helping them to understand why it is risky. 

“I don’t know that it’s necessarily about whether we should have very strict guidelines and expect people to break them or lax ones that allow flexibility, but rather to have guidelines that people can easily understand and follow.

“It’s particularly important that they can be seen to follow them, if there is a level of policing through social disapproval that can be quite a good deterrent.

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“And we’re not talking about manhunts, it’s more a deterrent on ones own behaviour if you think someone in your own social group would disapprove.”

She said apparent frustration or fatigue with the restrictions is not borne out in the data from public opinion surveys.

“People certainly might have low morale in that they’re sick of the virus but in terms of how people think we’re responding to it and how well they say they’re complying with restrictions we haven’t seen that flag.

“Particularly in a situation where our behaviour is the primary defence against the virus, the more we can communicate what behaviours we should be doing to protect us the better.”

From the government side, while it acknowledges the importance of Christmas to people, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe says that business need certainty beyond the Christmas weeks. 

“I think we do need to look beyond Christmas itself and be aware that the long term and the medium term goal, in advance of a vaccine being broadly available, is to get the spread of the disease down to the lowest level possible,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

Christmas is so important from a family point of view and from a well-being point of view and for many from a warship point of view, so I would recoil from saying that we’re in some way caught up with it.

“But I know for example, from an economic point of view, if you talk to somebody who’s running a business, somebody who’s running a restaurant and they’re thinking of reopening it, they do want certainty beyond to 25 December.”

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

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