Why the UK complied with COVID-19 lockdown law

Halliday, Simon and Finch, Naomi and Meers, Jed and Tomlinson, Joe and Wilberforce, Mark (2022) Why the UK complied with COVID-19 lockdown law. King's Law Journal, 33 (3). pp. 386-410. ISSN 1757-8442 (https://doi.org/10.1080/09615768.2022.2109233)

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In March 2020, the UK introduced a set of rules to ‘lockdown’ the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown constituted a key feature of governmental efforts to manage the early stages of the pandemic. Evidence suggests that the lockdown attracted high levels of compliance. Yet, a question remains about exactly why the UK public complied. Based on a major empirical study, this article explores what drove legal compliance during the UK’s first lockdown. We find that legal compliance was dominated by normative concerns with the legitimacy of law. Yet, the public’s attachment to the legitimacy of law in general was undermined by concerns about the legitimacy of lockdown law specifically. Such specific legitimacy assessments were informed by people’s rights consciousness, their sense of obligation to others, perceptions of personal health vulnerability and assessments of the rules’ effectiveness in preventing virus transmission. The prospect of peer disapproval for beaching lockdown also proved significant, with the perceived risk of sanctions imposed by the police predicting fear of peer disapproval. The article concludes by considering what lessons might be learned about the use of legal rules to rapidly shape public behaviour in times of crisis.