Compliance with social distancing rules and self-isolation is low among people aged 18-29 and decreasing as their trust in the government slips, and they lack clear information, according to a paper circulated among the government’s Sage scientific advisers.
The paper, by the behavioural scientists’ group and considered by Sage on 22 October, recommended that university teaching should immediately go completely online and that schools should give out free face coverings. “Young people asked to isolate or stay at home should be provided with good financial and other support eg free mobile phone data, streaming and gaming,” it says.
According to work from University College London, complete compliance among young people was nearly 60% in early April, but down to 20-30% by late September. That compares with 40-45% of 30- to 50-year-olds and 50-55% in the over-60s.
Young people’s jobs, education and living conditions may all make it more difficult for them to stick to the rules, the paper says. They are more likely to work in jobs with high numbers of social contacts, for instance, and being at university or college makes it harder to keep apart. “Young people are more likely to live in all-adult, crowded, multi-occupancy housing, often with poor ventilation which may further contribute to rapid transmission,” says the paper.
But taking risks is often an important part of young people’s identity, and only 60% – less than any other age group – have confidence in the government’s measures for controlling the pandemic. They are also more likely to have had depression in the pandemic, with around a third reporting severe depressive symptoms.
The main aim of the paper was to help get messages to young people about the need to cut down on social contact and comply with isolation rules. Instead of instructing them on what to do, the best approach is to “emphasise what other peers are doing”, says the paper. “Communication interventions that explicitly target young people risk defining them as the problem and thereby alienating them.”
In early September the health secretary, Matt Hancock, delivered a grim warning to young people not to “kill granny” by taking the virus home. The paper urges the use of non-government sources such as charities, celebrities, sports clubs and commercial brands to get messages to young people, who need accurate information, for instance about wearing masks and the risks to their loved ones.
Young people are strongly oriented towards their peer group, the paper says. They should be encouraged to care for each other but also made aware of the risk of infection among their friends.