By Kristina Murphy, Patrick O’Leary, Harley Williamson and Jennifer Boddy

As COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease across Australia, some restraints on socialising, hygiene practices and doing business will remain. Given eased restrictions and post-lockdown recommendations sound more like guidelines than rules they can be subjectively interpreted in different ways by different people. This makes compliance with the recommendations more challenging to enforce.

Even during lockdown, when there was greater certainty about what constituted non-compliance with social distancing rules, there were numerous instances of people flouting the rules. Police issued thousands of infringement notices around the country in response.

To what extent, then, can we ‘trust’ the Australian public to comply voluntarily with the post-lockdown recommendations of our health authorities? Can we continue to rely on most Australians to maintain 1.5m distance from others, to avoid mass gatherings, to practice good hygiene measures, or to stay at home when unwell? Or will we see complacency creep in?

Given the virulent nature of COVID-19, even minor transgressions may have disastrous consequences. Recent mass protests for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign highlight some public health fears that non-compliance with social distancing may see a spike in COVID-19 infections.

Public compliance with COVID-19 restrictions: What did we learn during lockdown?

There was a great deal of commentary regarding the public’s compliance with COVID-19 restrictions during the early stages of the pandemic.

Researchers from the Griffith University’s Criminology Institute subsequently conducted a nationwide survey of 1,595 Australians 5-weeks after mandatory social distancing restrictions were introduced in Australia.  Survey participants were asked to report on their level of compliance with social distancing restrictions including those associated with travel, socialising, shopping and leaving the house for non-essential reasons.

Surprisingly, results showed a substantial proportion of participants did not fully adhere to the mandatory social distancing rules. Non-compliance rates were as follows: In the past 7 days did you… (1) socialize in person with friends/relatives you don’t live with (50.3% of survey respondents reported being non-compliant); (2) leave the house without a really good reason (45.5% were non-compliant); (3) travel for leisure (39.6% were non-compliant); (4) went shopping for essential or non-essential items with COVID-19 symptoms (5.9% were non-compliant); and (5) went shopping for non-essential items when healthy (57.2% were non-compliant). Further, non-compliance with restrictions was found to increase over the duration of the lockdown period.

The survey also found that women were more likely to comply than men. And older Australians were more likely to comply than younger Australians. Those who perceived the health risk posed by COVID-19 to be greater and those with a greater perceived risk of being caught and fined for breaching social distancing restrictions were more likely to report higher levels of compliance. However, personal morality and duty to obey the authorities were the two primary predictors of compliance. Specifically, those who thought it was morally wrong to flout the rules and those who felt a stronger duty to obey the instructions of the authorities were most compliant.

What can we expect as restrictions ease in the next few months?

Early success in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia (approx. 7,320 confirmed cases and 102 deaths at the time of writing) has in part been due to a widespread willingness to comply with restrictions. However, ensuring continued and general public compliance with measures that limit personal liberties is a tenuous game.

In a country where citizens rightly expect freedom of movement, long-term restrictions limiting social gatherings or limits on leaving the house when unwell will become increasingly difficult for authorities to implement and enforce. This is particularly so for a country like Australia that has had few instances of community transmission. With so few cases, people risk becoming complacent.

During the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009, for example, UK researchers found that most people surveyed were complacent about adopting social distancing measures.  Only 26% of those surveyed reported being anxious about contracting the disease and most said they had not adopted recommended hygiene measures such as hand washing (72%). Further, only 5% of respondents said they had avoided large crowds or public transport during the pandemic. Believing that the H1N1 outbreak had been exaggerated was associated with fewer social distancing behaviours.

Does this mean enforcement is the answer?

The simple answer to this question is no. It is impossible to enforce compliance with personal hygiene habits and it is near impossible to detect those who leave their houses when unwell. The Griffith study cited above also revealed that enforcement played very little role in motivating Australians’ decisions to flout social distancing rules during lockdown. Instead, personal morality and obligation to abide by the recommendations of authorities were more important to compliance decisions. This poses some important questions about how much discretion should be ‘allowed’ in order to ‘trust’ that people are being suitably compliant.

Authorities need to focus most on continuing to educate and remind citizens that COVID-19 is dangerous and that Australians cannot yet ‘relax’ or become complacent in their social distancing practices. Importantly, authorities need to continue to persuade citizens that it is both morally right to follow the rules and that we all have a duty to protect those most vulnerable to the disease. In other words, the best strategy authorities have available to them is to encourage people to follow the recommendations because they have a moral responsibility to act to protect others. Marketing this ‘moral responsibility’ will be a public relations challenge in balancing citizenship freedom with state mechanisms for compliance. Only time will tell whether such means will keep transmission of COVID-19 under control in Australia.