Understanding the UK’s security and civil contingency response to the pandemic and enforcement

Research Institution / Organisation

Keele University

In Collaboration With

See Research Context for details.

Principal Researcher

Professor Clifford Stott

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

September 2020

Research Context

​There is recognition in both research and policy circles that public engagement is essential in response to emergencies. Yet there are important gaps in our understanding of the processes underlying engagement and how to facilitate it. In social psychology, a powerful body of knowledge on public behaviour in emergencies points to the central role of social identity and group processes in adherence, informal mutual aid, and relations with responders. However, there is little research which relates this directly to pandemics.

We propose a translational programme which will show how group processes apply in the Covid-19 context. On the question of understanding and improving public adherence to Covid-19 guidance, many of the required activities involve our relations with others (social distancing, self-isolation). We will examine how the sense of self implied in the framing of these public health messages (i.e. collective vs individual) impacts on adherence.

Second, emergent community support groups are critical in complementing official agencies – in shopping, providing emotional support and more – but these groups tend to decline over time, even while needs remain high. In the case of Covid-19, we will examine the factors that enable these groups to endure.

Third, police and other category 1 responders need to work with both each other and the public, but procedural fairness and cooperation may be difficult to achieve in the novel context of Covid-19. We will identify the good practices and underlying mechanisms (including perceived legitimacy and identification) that engender effective multiagency working and positive outcomes (including facilitating adherence).

Stephen Reicher, St Andrews University; John Drury, University of Sussex; Mark Harrison, University of Oxford; Holly Carter, Public Health England; Fergus Neville, St Andrews University; Evangelos Ntontis, Canterbury Christ Church University.

Collaboration partners:
Paul Quinton, College of Policing; Professor Richard Amlôt, Public Health England; Kari Deas, Dundee Mutual Aid; Dr Laura de Molière, Government Communication Service; Rebecca Bryant,Staffordshire Fire & Rescue Service; Bethan Morgan, Staffordshire Civil Contingencies Unit;  Chief Superintendent Daniel Greenwood, West Yorkshire Police.

Research Methodology

The empirical work is divided into three complementary strands.

Strand 1 will test the hypothesis that collectivization (i.e., making shared identities more salient than personal identities) increases engagement in pro-social behaviours (social distancing, limited buying, self-isolation) for the collective good. This hypothesis will be tested with online experiments (and, if it becomes possible, experiments using the specially-designed social immersion lab at St Andrews University). The first pair of experiments will involve framing the pandemic in either individual terms (how it affects you personally) or collective terms (how it affects your community); in each study - which will differ in the nature of the collective identity made salient: national vs. regional (e.g. ‘northerners’) - we will measure identification with the community, perceived risk to self and to community, empathy with other community members, adherence intentions and proxy measures.  The second pair of experiments (which will address different domains of adherence – hygiene behaviours vs. social distancing) will examine the impact of leaders' speeches which frame adherence in either individual or collective terms. The third pair of studies involves showing people images of either pro-social behaviours (volunteering, participating in mutual aid groups, clapping the NHS) or anti-social behaviours (stockpiling, failing to socially distance) and examining the impact on trust in neighbours, sense of community identity, adherence, and mutual aid.                                           

Strand 2 will examine the psychological bases of participation in the informal mutual aid groups among the public which are necessary in times of crisis. Based on our previous work, we will examine the role of both contextual affordances (i.e., common fate as basis for shared identity) and strategic factors (e.g., conscious activities by activists to maintain group identity) and their effect on mitigating the typical decline of such groups. The first part will involve (video) interviewing 30 people active in coordinating/ organizing different local groups. Interviews will cover ‘what works’ in terms of motivations to get people involved, effective organization, psychological consequences (stress, wellbeing and efficacy), problems and tips for other organizers, and the role of tools (e.g. Facebook and WhatsApp) for coordinating and maintaining group identity. The second part will comprise an online questionnaire panel survey of members of such groups. The survey design is two-wave panel, two months apart, to examine the relationship between t1 predictors and t2 outcome measures. Sample size is based on the recommendation of at least 200 participants to get a minimum statistical power (.80) in a model with multiple mediators.

Strand 3 will utilise our networks of partnerships with stakeholder organisations in different geographical locations across the UK. This will include a range of people within civil contingency units / local resilience forums including police, fire and rescue and military, particularly where they have a role in responding to community tensions. We will conduct at least 65 ethnographic panel interviews with different levels from command to frontline to understand their approach, challenges encountered, and decisions made. We will also analyse enforcement data (arrest figures, prohibitions, fixed penalty notices) from three police forces (Staffs, West Yorks, West Midlands) to assess the impact of civil contingency responses on public behaviour. Based on our
previous work and on procedural justice theory, we will use the interviews and enforcement data to examine the extent to which responder strategies which attempt to build legitimacy and shared identity with the public are associated with subsequent public cooperation. We will hold regular analysis meetings among PHE and university-based teams. We will use this analysis to produce regular rapid evidence assessments that we will feed back to our partners at an operational level to support the development of good working practices in response to Covid-19.


  1. We will develop actionable guidance principles and techniques for effectively communicating with the public (for government campaigns and general messaging) on adherence to public health measures.

  2. We will produce guidance tools for community solidarity groups. These will be scaled for use across the UK through being disseminated via a website, social media, and a dialogue event presenting our analysis of examples of sustained community mutual aid groups, recommendations for ‘what works’, and case studies.

  3. We will produce regular rapid evidence assessments to our civil contingencies partners. We will provide them with briefing papers and host a dissemination event to help support the ongoing development of good working practices in response to Covid-19. 

Date due for completion

December 2021
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