COVID-19: Why psychology expert has 'certain sense of sympathy' for coronavirus rule-breakers

A psychology expert says he has some sympathy for those who have failed to follow public health advice, with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 and lockdowns continuing to have an impact on communities.

It was revealed last week that a student at the Manukau Institute of Technology - also known as Case M - did not isolate after getting tested for COVID-19, visiting Papatoetoe CityFitness and several public spots. He later returned a positive result.

It was also revealed his mother - who tested positive for COVID-19 at the weekend - went for a walk with the mother of an infected household during the last level 3 lockdown despite both being told to self-isolate - information that was initially withheld from officials.

But psychology expert Christopher Gale, from the University of Otago, says people are tired. Auckland was placed back into alert level 3 on Saturday night, just days after previous restrictions were lifted.

Dr Gale told Newshub while it's not necessarily appropriate for people to break the rules, officials had to find a balance between the law and cooperation.

"When the mortgages are tight and finances are tight, people are probably going to go to work. They are going to go back to various things so I've got a certain sense of sympathy for people who have broken the rules.'" 

Health officials have been reluctant to initiate legal action against rule-breakers, with Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern both saying a punitive approach may discourage people from coming forward.

Dr Gale agreed being punitive could backfire.

"People do stupid stuff - people don't keep to the rules, some people are going to break rules. That is not nice and it's not necessarily appropriate, and sometimes it's criminal - the question is how you balance the use of coercion and the law versus [the] use of cooperation."

Ardern on Monday urged New Zealanders to call out COVID-19 rule-breakers but with "kindness". 

"Our plan is for short and sharp restrictions in order to break the chain of transmission but rule-breaking can prolong that plan," she told reporters. "That is why I'm asking everyone - now more than ever - to continue to support and back one another. 

"If that means calling a family member or work colleague out for not following the rules, then we should do that."

Meanwhile, Dr Bloomfield said the rule-breaking families had been "extremely remorseful" and suggested the intense public backlash had been enough of a punishment. 

"I saw an article in the paper this morning about them feeling the weight of the country on their shoulders," he told The AM Show on Tuesday.

Ashley Bloomfield and Jacinda Ardern.
Ashley Bloomfield and Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub.

The steps taken from now on are what's important, Dr Bloomfield said.

"I don't think they did anything deliberate to land us in this situation and the information about the connection between the two families was actually volunteered very early by the mother in this latest group," he said. "I don't think anyone failed here - I think it happened, for whatever reason, and it's what we do now that's important.

"We can't afford to give this virus an inch, and if taking a punitive punishment approach could deter people from coming forward and getting tested, we've got a bigger problem on our hands."