UK Chief Medical Officer Thinks Britons Would Accept New Corona Restrictions

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 19: Protesters confront a police line outside the House of Commons
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England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty has suggested that Britons would accept fresh restrictions, after 20 months of on-and-off lockdowns and social distancing.

Professor Whitty made the comment during a discussion hosted by the Local Government Association in relation to the announcement of a new strain of the Chinese coronavirus, which prompted the British government to announce on Friday a quarantine of travellers from six southern African countries including South Africa.

The chief medical officer told the panel in comments reported by the BBC that his “greatest worry” was whether people would accept another series of restrictions, after being subjected to several forms of measures in nearly two years, with England’s latest round of restrictions that started in January only being lifted in July, with some rules, locally and nationally, still in place.

“My greatest worry at the moment is that people… if we need to do something more muscular at some point, whether it’s for the current new variant or at some later stage, can we still take people with us?” Prof Whitty said.

The medical chief admitted that some of the measures had been “very destructive to social and economic situations for individuals and families,” and said: “Obviously, we want to avoid having to do those at all if we can, and to do the minimum ones necessary, but will we be able to maintain public support?”

Answering his own question, Whitty said: “And I think my overall view is, I think we will,” before continuing that he believed Britons would once again fall in line “provided we’re clear to people what the logic is and provided they feel that we’re being entirely straight with them as to all the data and the knowns and the unknowns.”

“I think the extraordinary thing has been the ability of the UK population, with very, very small exceptions, to just accept that there are things we collectively have to do to protect one another and do collectively, including things that have been very destructive to social and economic situations for individuals and families,” he said, quoting recent polls that show Britons apparently in fervent support for fresh restrictions if needed.

One YouGov poll from late October saw respondents back in strong majorities the return of compulsory masks on public transports and in shops, working from home, and even vaccine passports for large events.

Other polls in the past near-two years have seen Britons largely fearful of coronavirus and supportive of restrictions and even backing stricter punishments for COVID rule-breakers.

Earlier on in the pandemic, however, Britons were not so frightened of the virus, with a YouGov poll from mid-March, 2020, finding most were largely unconcerned about COVID-19. This lack of fear proved an issue, according to the behavioural science sub-group of the influential Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which suggested in a March 23rd, 2020, paper that the government use emotional messaging to increase citizens’ personal fear and thus their adherence to government measures.

The Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) paper entitled “Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures” noted that “a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened” by the Chinese virus.

Under a section entitled “Persuasion”, the authors wrote: “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging. To be effective this must also empower people by making clear the actions they can take to reduce the threat.”

While Britain has ploughed on with what the Associated Press described as its “new, more constrained normal”, the rest of Europe has been thrown into lockdowns and greater restrictions, including in Austria, which will introduce mandatory vaccination for all residents from February. As a result, last weekend saw the continent erupt into protest.

Whitty, however, admitted on Friday that politicians needed to continue to take a “temperature check” of the national mood, suggesting he feared the risk of public rebellion, saying: “If the decision of that society is ‘no, actually that isn’t where the majority are’, then we need to recognise that and reflect that in what we do.”


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