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expert reaction to study looking at household mixing during lockdowns in England

A study published in Scientific Reports looks at household visitation during the COVID‑19 pandemic.


Prof Robert Dingwall, Professor of Sociology, Nottingham Trent University, said:

“This study is based on a relatively new method, which complements established survey methods but has its own limitations. There has been increasing scepticism about the degree of social desirability bias in responses to ONS surveys of compliance – people giving the ‘right’ answer rather than describing their actual behaviour. This is a fundamental problem for all survey research and why direct observation  of what people do, rather than what they say they do, is generally preferred, where practicable. It is obviously difficult to observe behaviour on a large scale and this method goes some way towards filling that gap. The authors are properly cautious about its limitations – based on a sample of smartphone owners who have voluntarily installed a proprietary tracking app and on assumptions about when people are actually in a domestic space. In this case, people could have, legally, been meeting in gardens and creating false positives or in flats over restaurants and creating false negatives. It is then important to look at the broad trends rather than the detail. That detail could only be added in ways that would be ethically compromising.

“It is also a study of correlations. The authors clearly struggle a bit with their desire to infer causal explanations from the associations that they find. However, they stress that, while their data are consistent with some speculations about the drivers of non-adherence, statements about causation will require further studies using different methods. Nevertheless, it is reasonably clear how resilient the demand for household visitation is in the face of various suppression measures and that it does not diminish with time. If anything, there is a bounce-back, when pent-up demand is released, with a surge in visitation before returning to pre-pandemic levels.

“The evidence of regional and within-regional variations suggest that non-adherence is also likely to be a complex issue. It is often treated in policy as if it were a simple matter of enforcing compliance but these data suggest that ‘lockdown fatigue’ is rather like ‘vaccine hesitancy’, where a specific behaviour is the result of multiple causes. Simply requiring adherence without understanding those causes, which this paper, rightly, does not try to do, is unlikely to be effective.

“Pandemic management has often tried to work against the grain of human social behaviour for reasons which may seem rational to scientific or medical leaders. This paper contributes to underlining the limitations of that approach. The problem will not be resolved by doubling down on restrictions and enforcement, as the current populist resistance to restrictions in several European countries is demonstrating.”


Dr Simon Williams, Senior Lecturer in People and Organisation, Swansea University, said:

“The study provides new and important evidence showing how people have behaved during different phases of the pandemic, including the various lockdowns, in terms of visiting other households.

“Much of the published research evidence on mixing during the pandemic that we have thus far tends to be from self-report surveys, where people are asked how much they have been following the rules, including how many people they have had contact with or how many households they have visited.  Overall, these surveys tend to show that adherence to measures have been quite high throughout the pandemic.  However, they do also show that adherence tends to be lower during times when restrictions are being relaxed.  The limitation of such surveys is that people can sometimes be biased in their reporting (either because they don’t remember details accurately or they want to appear to be doing the ‘right thing’).

“This new study’s findings are important as they demonstrate as each of the lockdowns wore on, people started to engage in more household mixing, which as the authors suggest could be related to ‘lockdown fatigue’.  However, we need to be cautious in using the term fatigue because it implies that people ‘grew tired’ of following the rules, and there are a whole host of other factors that explain adherence to measures including restrictions on household mixing, including how clear the guidance was at the time, whether there was a perception of mixed messages, and whether some people  found it increasingly difficult to stay at home due to financial or practical reasons over time.

“Also interesting is how after the first lockdown, and especially towards the end of, and immediately after, the third lockdown, the amount of household visiting was higher than at baseline – that is at normal pre-pandemic levels.  As the authors’ note: “The significant increase in household mixing by mid-February 2021 rose above baseline levels by between 1.4% and 23.3% during the third lockdown, despite national restrictions remaining in place”.  We might see that this is evidence of a type of ‘behavioural rebound’ where people over-compensate after a period of restricted socialising by socialising more than they ordinarily would.  

“Another of the study’s findings is that increases in household mixing may have also been driven by a growing perception throughout 2021 vaccinations were providing more safety.  

“At an uncertain time, when many European countries are experiencing steep rises in cases, it is important to acknowledge that any new restrictions on household mixing may not be adhered to as closely as in previous periods of restriction.  Moreover, the study serves as a timely reminder that as vaccines and now boosters continue to be rolled out, messages about the ongoing importance of other infection-reducing behaviours and measures – appropriate to the level of threat in any given country of course – need to continue to be communicated clearly”.



‘Household visitation during the COVID‑19 pandemic’ by Stuart Ross et al. was published in Scientific Reports at 16:00 UK time on Thursday 25 November.



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