Post-pandemic behaviour: What could be here to stay in 2021?

Face coverings could be here to stay for hesitant members of the public, while hugging loved ones will quickly return to the norm when safe to do so in 2021, according to behaviour experts.

Monday, 21st December 2020, 3:45 pm

The coronavirus crisis has led to drastic changes in people’s behaviour this year, with everyday practices like handshakes replaced with elbow bumps and social distancing a crucial tool in curbing transmission.

Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, acknowledged that the widespread wearing of face coverings was a “big shift” for the UK.

“All these countries that had Sars and Mers adopted face coverings and then they never gave them up,” she told the PA news agency.

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The coronavirus crisis has led to drastic changes in people’s behaviour this year

“Particularly during the colder months when there are more respiratory viruses circulating, or when people are worried about pollution.

“It’s a big shift for the UK.

“Some people really hate them and will be keen to get rid of them, but I think people who are more cautious probably will continue to wear them.”

She thought it unlikely they would become as widespread as in southeast Asian countries, adding: “But I think it will be socially acceptable for people to wear them, people are not going to stare or make fun of people if they do.”

Prof Bauld said some short term changes, like physical distancing, would not be longer-term, with people returning to hugging and shaking hands when they felt comfortable to do so.

Dr Nilu Ahmed, a behavioural psychologist at the University of Bristol, said it was likely people would quickly return to hugging family and friends although she expected people to be more cautious about contact like shaking hands in formal settings.

“When it comes to our closer networks, there’ll be no change in that behaviour, we’ll go back to what we’ve been missing,” she said.

“But when we’re around strangers, there will be much more caution that people will adopt.”

Meanwhile, one expert said more regular hand-washing and using antibacterial gel could become a permanent change in behaviour and help reduce the spread of other diseases in the population.

Dr Flavio Toxvaerd, a specialist in the economics of infectious diseases at the University of Cambridge, said another positive long-term change is countries being forced to adopt new technologies in response to the pandemic.

“And I think that’s going to be an irreversible change that is going to have far reaching consequences for the way we work, and the way we travel, and the way we go to school,” he said.

“So, some of these changes might have been inevitable and would have occurred anyway down the line.

“But in some senses, the epidemic has forced us into trying new things.”

Stephen Reicher, a member of the behavioural science advisory group to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the past year had demonstrated the importance of being connected to others.

Reflecting on the pandemic, he said adopting and putting emphasis on the term social distancing at the beginning of the crisis was a “real mistake”.

Prof Reicher, of the University of St Andrews, said: “Because we don’t want to socially distance, we want to spatially distance.

“If you don’t connect people, it has huge impacts on mental health, and if you do connect people, it gives them huge strength and resilience.

“We found new ways of connecting.

“If this pandemic happened 20 years ago, before the internet, I think it would have been very, very different indeed.”

Prof Bauld raised concerns that the public had been “trained” to be more isolated and that it could take time for some people to socialise in the same way again.

“It’s not about going to the cinema or to some event, it’s more about the fact that people have learned that they can get through life with fewer social contacts,” she said.

“I just wonder whether that might be something that is with us for a little while.”

She said that while a positive to this could be realising the “unnecessary energy expended on maintaining relationships that they don’t need to”, those who were particularly isolated during the pandemic could remain more so.

“We just need to keep an eye on those kind of mental health and other issues I think well into 2021,” she added.

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