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The real reason people have problems following the rules

My kids and I went out to get shoes the other day. It was something of a scary experience, being the first time we’d been out in a public place since lockdown began. In fact, it was the first time in even longer for me. Because I’m one of ‘The Shielded’!

Ordinarily, that being the case, I wouldn’t be within ten miles of a shared indoor place. But Ernie needed shoes, and Ernie needs particular shoes because he wears orthotics. So there we were, hands scrubbed and sanitised, masks in place, maintaining our little socially-distanced shoe-fitting bubble, and someone got too close for Ernie’s comfort.

‘You’re too close to my mummy!” he declared. Because he understands that all the mask-wearing, hand-scrubbing and social distancing keeps me safe.

Here’s the thing. Ernie’s four. But he and his eight-year-old sister get what many grown-ups apparently don’t. That the precautions we have in place are there for a reason. And that by disregarding them, we put ourselves and others at risk. So how come they get it, and so many others don’t?


Take masks. Spend any time on social media, and all you see are ‘Karens’ (of all genders and none) defending their ‘rights’ to refuse to wear one. Kicking off at store staff because they’re being refused entry. Screaming about freedoms and hoaxes.

Most of the films are shot in the US, but we’re not without our own supply. I’ve also lost count of the number of people wearing their masks entirely the wrong way. And again, I’ve been wondering why.

The conclusion I’ve reached isn’t so much a conclusion as an affirmation of what I’ve known for a very long time: that leadership can have more impact on people’s behaviour than any amount of communication.


The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) started recommending masks in April. Trump told reporters he wouldn’t. For almost four months, he’s stuck to that. He recently changed his mind. It made global headlines. Global. Because he wore a bit of fabric across his face.

His UK counterpart hasn’t been much better. And while (to be fair), opinion and evidence about wearing masks has been fluctuating greatly around the world, the problem goes wider and deeper than that.

Both Trump and Johnson started by denying the potential impact of the virus. Boris was chattering on about shaking hands with staff and patients in hospitals. Donald – well, we know about some of his claims. Zoflora shot, anyone?


So these two national leaders began by showing contempt and indecision, and by offering a series of (at best) unclear and (at worst) insane messages about how we should act. The result?

People who will reach over your shoulder in the supermarket. Who wander around with zero regard for the one-way system. Who, once there are no barriers or floor markings in place, abandon the 2m rule. Who, even if they wear a mask, wear it wrong.

And then there’s little Ernie. Who gets that we wear masks and wash hands and stay 2m apart because it’s safer that way. Who bristled up at someone three times his height because that person was too close to his mum. Because right from the get-go, he’s not only had all the information he needs, he’s also seen everyone he regards as his ‘leaders’ following the same rules.

Seems simple, doesn’t it?

And yet, in my line of work, it’s still something I struggle to get across. But I’ve seen for myself, time and again, that if you want people to behave in a certain way, you have to set them the example. Whether you’re their mum or not.

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