Why do tens of thousands of people put themselves, their families, the old and the vulnerable at risk? Why do the authorities let them do it? What lessons can we learn?


Covid-19 came to the UK in force early in 2020. The most infectious, dangerous virus since Spanish Flu in 1918-19 which killed up to 50 million people world-wide. The response was affectionately known as lock-down although, for many people it could have been lock-up and through away the key. Three months later, with the virus under control but still there, waiting for another chance to add to the 40,000 deaths, and the rules begin to ease. The instructions may not be 100% clear but they aren’t that hard to understand. Initially one-to-one meetings, then small groups, always outdoors and always with ‘social distancing’. What happens? Thousands of people cramming the beaches, hundreds of young people gathering for raves, and lastly thousands upon thousands of people joining protests in most of the UK’s large cities. Sticking to the rules? No chance. Social distancing? No chance. The best case would be that participants had done a risk assessment and were doing everything they could to mitigate the risk, masks, hand gels, minimum contact. Probably not.


Humans are individuals operating within a social context, both characteristics have equal importance and influence on behaviour. What is it about society and human nature that results in this kind of behaviour now? In answering that question, I will give my views and try to be analytical not critical, rational not emotional. But I do have to admit to thinking the behaviour is crazy even if the people aren’t. I will offer a number of contributory causes that may have come together and resulted in this seemingly high-risk behaviour. I will group them as either social or psychological.

Social Influences

We are fortunate to live in a liberal social democracy with a highly effective welfare state. Society only functions for the benefit of all with a working balance of individual rights and social responsibility, a balance between anarchy and authoritarianism. Rights are granted to individuals by society in return for individuals exercising their responsibilities to society. Since the onset of democracy, individual rights have gained in prominence and huge progress has been made. This has resulted in a rights-oriented culture to the exclusion of responsibility. This has been accompanied by a shift towards a presumption of freedom, of speech or demonstration for example. A benign welfare state removes many threats to survival and creates a bubble of protection that can make us feel invincible. I am not suggesting that any of this is a bad thing, far from it. It is a timely balancing after thousands of years of autocratic rule. I am simply suggesting that it creates a mindset that favours impulsive, self-centred action.

Government in such a democracy requires a different approach to that in an autocracy. It necessitates decision making by consensus, restraint of individual action and restriction of individual rights only with the approval and acceptance of the majority. Behaviour once considered unacceptable is now tolerated unless it is harmful to society and that judgement is not an easy one to make. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, government has acted on the advice of large numbers of experts, not just health experts but from all sides of business, academia and charities. This has included input from behavioural science and psychology practitioners who have given views on how to foster the right behaviour and protect the mental health of everyone affected. This advice has been overwhelmingly biased towards the carrot and not the stick, with the need for help and support being of greatest importance. Given this advice, ministers have made difficult decisions with no previous experience to guide them. The last time anything resembling lock-down was implemented was in the time of the plague, last seen in earnest in the 17th century.

In recent years, UK government has adopted ‘nudge theory’ as its weapon of choice to manage behaviour and, in 2010 established a ‘nudge unit’, properly known as the Behavioural Insights Team. Nudge theory is based on a system of making choices that does not require analytical decision making or seek to find the optimal solution. Nudge seeks to change behaviour without resistance or confrontation. Nudge advocates change through indirect influence rather than instruction and enforcement. Nudge seems to be ideally suited as a method of government in a liberal social democracy. It is my view as an observer that we have been witnessing nudge in action throughout the Covid-19 emergency. The language used has been ‘soft’, suggestive and persuasive rather than authoritarian and directive. Whilst there have been rules, they have not been strictly enforced. Critics have argued that this approach has been too soft and that clear instructions and strict enforcement were needed. Whether that would have worked effectively or not, whether it would have been accepted or resisted, we will never know. We are where we are.

Individual Psychology

Humans are genetically social. We need to love and be loved. We need to belong and be welcomed. We need physical contact, hugs, strokes, kisses and cuddles. Known as Touch Deprivation, or ‘skin hunger’, the consequences of missing out on this basic need can be severe. Loneliness, sadness, anxiety and depression; aggressive behaviour, body image, sexual dysfunction, fear of attachment and relationship problems. All these can be the result of a simple lack of touch. It is a need that we crave to gratify.

The easing of lock-down has been greeted by many with a great sense of relief. Despite 90% of the UK population supporting lock-down measures, almost 30% have also found it extremely difficult to cope. There has been a significant difference in tolerance levels by age group, with the younger generations finding lock-down much harder. Effectively being granted a degree of ‘freedom’, the resulting emotion amongst those suffering most distress has been elation, bordering on euphoria. Behaviour associated with euphoria includes heightened self-esteem, an intense desire to be active and poor judgement.

The need to act in support of a cause, something a person cares deeply about, is a powerful motivator. There can be no greater cause than equality, fair treatment regardless of colour, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion or ability. When something happens that offends a strong belief, then the call to act can be irresistible, even when faced with serious risk to one’s own safety. The decision whether to act or not is a question of judgment, the risk of acting against the risk of not acting. Judgement is personal, based on individual beliefs and values and we cannot easily predict the outcome of such judgements, neither should we lightly criticise them.


Taking all these factors into account, maybe some of the recent behaviour has not been crazy at all. Maybe it is the natural response to individual psychology in the context of modern society and liberal, paternalistic government. It is, after all, only a minority behaving this way. The vast majority continue to act out of concern and caution, doing their best to avoid any risk of contracting the virus whilst seeking ways to improve their social lives. If the behaviour of the few has no real impact on infection rates then maybe we should just wish them luck and hope that neither they, nor their relatives and friends (or me and mine) suffer as a result.

This is not to condone any violence or vandalism that accompanied the protests, nor to support the anarchic minority that use such events to cover their actions. Neither is it to approve of the behaviour, or to recommend it. It is simply to say that it may be understandable in the circumstances, however misguided and unfortunate. I did not do it, but I cannot say I would never do it.