Threats of arrest, fines or quarantine do not encourage people to behave in line with public health advice on Covid-19, research from NUI Galway as part of a global study of attitudes towards the pandemic has found.
But one of the “starkest warnings” in the latest tranche of findings from the iCARE study is that a “fatigue” is setting in with the public over following strict measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, researchers have warned.
The analysis of more than 65,000 responses to date in the ongoing international study, which began in March, is being shared with the National Public Health Emergency Team, which is advising the Government.
Dr Hannah Durand, iCARE collaborator and behavioural science researcher at NUIG, said the data contradicts calls for harsher measures to be imposed for those flouting guidelines.
Amid controversy over students partying at Galway's Spanish Arch last week, Senator Ollie Crowe had called for the Army to be deployed. In the UK, fines of up to £10,000 have been introduced for refusing to self-isolate when ordered by healthcare officials.
“If the Government takes a hardline, paternalistic approach, such measures will make it less likely to encourage people to adhere to the guidelines,” Dr Durand said. “It might cause people to disengage and have the opposite effect.
“We have concrete data now that threatening people with the likes of arrest is not going to work. The data is really clear that that is not the way to go.
“It is much more effective to encourage good behaviour. It is just human nature.”
Dr Durand said the latest findings show the most effective strategy in getting the public to follow guidelines is to “remind people their behaviour is saving lives, rather than penalising very small minorities who are not adhering”.
The study further suggests that a “one size fits all message” on coronavirus needs to be tailored to different groups, who are in turn mostly worried about either the health, economic or social impact on their lives.
“Based on the results so far, we believe targeted messaging is key to getting populations to follow public health guidelines,” said Dr Durand.
“Government-sponsored efforts at encouraging adherence must be customised to the group they are designed to reach.”
The research also shows that just over 16 per cent of people who tested positive for Covid-19 or who suspected they had the virus reported not self-isolating.
Dr Simon Bacon, co-lead on the study, said "it tends to be men more often than women, usually in their 20s and early 30s, who are not following the isolation measures in full".
“There are several explanations for this, including greater risk-taking propensity among young men,” he said.
“However, we must acknowledge that young people are more likely to work in low-paid, public-facing jobs that make it difficult to adhere to restrictions. They are a key group of people we need to re-engage with.”
Other key findings to date include that the vast majority of people are following Government and health authority directives for the pandemic, however less rigorously now than in March.
Wearing a mask has the poorest uptake, with less than half (49 per cent) of respondents practising the measure.
Most people said they are adhering to physical distancing guidelines – specifically staying two metres away from others (84 per cent) – and avoiding large gatherings (90 per cent) most of the time.
Adherence to hand-hygiene guidelines (89 per cent) and good coughing etiquette (86 per cent) was also high.
Eight in 10 people are somewhat or greatly concerned that a relative who they do not live with would be infected with Covid-19, while more than half of the people surveyed (58 per cent) are somewhat or greatly concerned about being isolated.
The International Covid-19 Awareness and Responses Evaluation (iCARE) research is being carried out in collaboration with the Montreal Behavioural Medicine Centre in Canada.
More than 150 researchers from 40 countries are working on the study.