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Pandemic fatigue? How adherence to covid-19 regulations has been misrepresented and why it matters

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 18 January 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n137

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  1. Stephen Reicher1,
  2. John Drury2
  1. 1School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, UK
  2. 2School of Psychology, University of Sussex, UK
  1. sdr{at}

Non-adherence is a matter of practicality, not psychology

As England and Scotland start another period of lockdown, we all must come to terms with following stricter restrictions, most likely for a relatively long period of time. The notion of behavioural fatigue associated with adherence to covid restrictions (“pandemic fatigue”) has been a recurrent theme throughout the crisis. It was invoked before the first wave in March 2020 as a reason to delay restrictions.1 It was invoked in October 2020 as a reason to delay the imposition of the circuit breaker which the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies had called for on 21 September.23 It was invoked in December 2020 as a reason to loosen restrictions over the Christmas period.4 In October, a Google search found some 200 million mentions of the term “pandemic fatigue.”5 By now, the figure has risen to over 240 million. It is a term that has entered both the academic and the popular lexicon.

Linked to the notion that people will find it hard to adhere to the rules because of shared human psychological frailties is the idea that when individuals break the rules it is because of their personal failings. They are either too weak, too stupid, or too immoral to do the right thing. Hence, terms like “covidiots” have become almost as familiar as “pandemic fatigue.” This feeds into a widespread narrative of blame whereby the spread of infections is explained in terms of those who choose to break the …

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