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Why events like 'Merrion Gate' can lead to reduced public compliance with Covid rules

After Golfgate, experts noticed a slight dip in how much people believed others were complying.

File image of Katherine Zappone and Leo Varadkar.
File image of Katherine Zappone and Leo Varadkar.
Image: Sam Boal

EARLIER THIS WEEK, news broke that former minister Katherine Zappone had hosted an outdoor event for 50 people in July on the grounds of the Merrion Hotel.

The revelation followed controversy around her appointment as UN Special Envoy on Freedom of Opinion and Expression – a role which was not publicly advertised, and which Zappone turned down following a week of political pressure. 

The get together at the luxury hotel served as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

What began as a straightforward political controversy expanded as questions were raised about whether the event was in compliance with Covid-19 restrictions. 

The Irish Independent first reported the details of the event which Zappone, the Merrion Hotel, the Attorney General and Leo Varadkar (who was also in attendance) insisted was compliant with Covid-19 regulations.

The AG advised the government that up to 200 people can legally attend organised outdoor events and gatherings.

On Friday, Fáilte Ireland updated its guidelines for organised outdoor events to reflect this on the foot of this clarification about the current regulations in place.

Opposition parties were quick off the mark, when news of the gathering first emerged, to compare this event to the Golfgate fiasco which occurred almost exactly a year ago.

There was outrage, as you’ll no doubt recall, after 81 people, including several elected and public figures, attended an Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in a hotel in Clifden.

005 Hogan RTE Former EU Commissioner Phil Hogan who resigned from the role in the wake following Golfgate controversy. Source: RollingNews.ie

The event led to a number of resignations and a legal case which has been adjourned until October.

It also had a temporary impact on some peoples’ beliefs about Covid compliance. Could the same happen with Merrion Gate? 

According to Dr Shane Timmons, a research officer with the behavioural unit at the Economic Social and Research Institute (ESRI), surveys showed there was a slight change in attitudes about compliance in the wake of Golfgate. 

“Overall, our perceptions of how other people are behaving are really strongly related to how cautious we’re going to be ourselves,” Dr Timmons told The Journal

If there are high-profile cases of non-compliance and that triggers that sense of unfairness, then that can risk non-compliance with people.

“After Golfgate, there was evidence in data that when people were asked about how much they thought other people were following guidelines, there was a dip in perceived compliance with others. Importantly, it did recover afterwards.”

This was noted at the time, with the ESRI’s Professor Pete Lunn discussing the impact on The Journal’s The Explainer podcast. 

This can be a concern as experts have noticed a link between a reduction in this perception that other people are complying with restrictions and a reduction in how much people abide by the rules themselves.

“Perception of other peoples’ behaviour is important,” Dr Timmons said. 

The ESRI’s social activity measure, which is a study that began in January this year, showcases the extent “to which other people complying with guidelines correlated with the risk you’re taking”.

“If [a person believes] other people are taking more risks, people are more likely to have more close contacts, be meeting more people and overall be less cautious.”

In terms of whether perceptions led to reduced compliance after Golfgate in 2020, Dr Timmons said the data was “too noisy” to know for sure last August but he said the effect was “probably there”.

He said there was a similar small but temporary dip in the UK levels of self-reported compliance with restrictions after the Dominic Cummings scandal last summer.

Cummings, at the time a senior advisor to prime minister Boris Johnson, caused outrage after he travelled from London to Durham during a period of lockdown when he contracted Covid-19. 

1160 Socail Distancing Social distancing signs in Stephen's Green in Dublin. Source: Sasko Lazarov

The aftermath of ‘Merrion Gate’

According to Dr Timmons, a similar effect could be seen after the events revealed this week, but it’s still too soon to definitively say.

Ámarach conducts weekly compliance surveys for the Department of Health, with the most recent one from 26 July showing around half of people believe all or most other people follow social distancing guidelines. 

Dr Timmons said compliance ties in with the idea of collective action problems – situations in which people would be better off cooperating, but fail to do so because of conflicting interests.

“The surveys show a strong sense of fairness and any sort of perceived unfairness can be very likely to cause compliance to unravel, so the balance is there and it can be quite difficult to maintain so any perceived unfairness risks losing that compliance,” he said. 

The overall response to any perceived unfairness is likely to be important and there was a significant backlash after Golfgate.

So while “it is speculative” to say what the outcome will be from the Merrion Hotel event, Dr Timmons said “the general response from the public will be interesting to monitor”.

“Essentially, if the reaction is that people don’t care it could lead to less compliance, but if the reaction is strong it may not have an impact.”

He said that “any sense of unfairness of other people breaking the rules” comes with a risk of leading to increased non-compliance.   

“With the success of the vaccine rollout, people might feel safer and so we will have to see how that’s going to interact with perceived compliance.

“So we’re quite unsure at the moment but it’s important to keep an eye on and we will see if anything comes out in the next wave of the social activity measure.”  

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Other factors at play

Dr Timmons said people who get most of their Covid-19 news from social media can have a skewed perspective on peoples’ compliance with restrictions.

He said that in the past, social media posts showing large crowds of people in areas like Galway’s Spanish Arch and Dublin’s South William Street could lead to people thinking few others are complying. 

“The data essentially showed the more people were getting information about Covid from social media rather than mainstream news, the less likely it is they think more people are likely abiding by the restrictions,” he said. 

As noted earlier, “this could then lead to them not abiding by any restrictions themselves”.

He said the surveys show that throughout the pandemic, the vast majority of people have been quite cautious and followed the restrictions in place.  

The HSE’s chief executive Paul Reid was asked about the Merrion Hotel incident earlier this week.

He said: “The only cause of concern we would have is that people would drop their guard in the next few weeks, whether it’s in frustration or confusion.

“The message from the HSE is, please, just stick with this. In a few week’s time we will be on a much better side of this pandemic. Don’t get confused or frustrated, just stick with what we’re doing – it’s working.”

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