The government has been accused of attempting “to blame the public” for lockdown failures despite sending out “contradictory” messages around current restrictions.
Some scientists have warned the “narrative of blame” - coupled with prominence placed on the most severe examples of rule-breaking - is “dangerous”.
On Monday, Boris Johnson said lockdown may need to be tightened if the rules are not “properly observed”. The PM said the regulations would be kept “under constant review” and that people "need to focus".
He said that, rather than the government “just pushing out new rules”, people should follow existing guidance.
“It’s now that people need to focus… when they’re out shopping, whether they’re buying cups of coffee in the park or whatever it happens to be, they need to think about spreading the disease.”
He was speaking after vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi warned against socialising under the guise of outdoor exercise after pictures emerged of large numbers of people in parks and public spaces at the weekend.
Later, health secretary Matt Hancock urged people to stay at home and "act like you have the virus".
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown
The current rules are less strict than the restrictions during the first lockdown last spring.
Outdoor exercise or meeting a friend, while keeping a social distance, in a park or public space is allowed, according to the rules. The definition of essential work has also been extended, while nurseries and places of worship have. been allowed to remain open.
On Tuesday, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said said officers in London had issued more than 300 notices in the space of 24 hours for “flagrant” violations of the regulations.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “That is quite a lot. I think it will have an impact and it will encourage more people to recognise that we are in a health crisis.”
Crime and policing minister Kit Malthouse said the government was closely monitoring the numbers of cases before deciding whether further measures were needed for England.
“We are at a very, very perilous stage in the progress of this virus through our country,” he told Sky News. “Whether there are going to be greater restrictions or not very much depends on the numbers. We are tracking the infection rate.
“We are all, frankly, on tenterhooks to see how the impact of the restrictions that came in on Boxing Day will impact on numbers, particularly in London and the South East.”
Amid concern that activity levels were higher than during the first lockdown in April, Malthouse said officers would be adopting a new “high-profile” approach to enforcing the rules.
Some experts have said the rules are confusing – with differences between the guidance and law – and blaming the public for “flouting” them could end backfiring.
Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of the unofficial Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), tweeted that “messages like ‘act like you've got the virus’ and ‘stay at home’ are very contradictory” when compared to the restrictions which actually allow, for example, people to gather in mass settings and send their children to nursery.
It's clear that the govt are attempting to shift the blame to the public for a more lax lockdown. But messages like "act like you've got the virus" and "stay at home" are very contradictory messages to easing of lockdown criteria and allowing people to gather in mass settings. https://t.co/RP4MpkpBKZ
— Dr Zubaida Haque (@Zubhaque) January 11, 2021
Human rights lawyer Adam Wagner tweeted that “criminal laws must be proportionate”.
He added: “Shaming and penalising people exercising outdoors and therefore relatively low risk is both strategically wrong and, from a rights perspective, disproportionate”
And others have gone even further. Writing in the British Medical Journal, Stephen Reicher and John Drury said that people flouting rules is often linked to them being “too weak, too stupid, or too immoral to do the right thing”.
They added: “This feeds into a widespread narrative of blame whereby the spread of infections is explained in terms of individuals and groups who choose to break the rules, rather than failures of public health response.”
The narrative of blame, they said, is “problematic and indeed dangerous” and they warned that if the public believes that breaking the rules has become “the norm” it may encourage the public not to abide by them.
They point to a press conference by Boris Johnson in September in which the PM spoke of people “flouting” and “brazenly defying” COVID restrictions.
However, they warn that those who are structurally more vulnerable – for example, those living in crowded housing – are most likely to be exposed to infection and the government should be doing more to support them, rather than castigate them. Particularly when they have previously been encouraged to “do their patriotic best” and go down to the pub.
Instead, the government should be highlighting “the remarkable and enduring resilience of the great majority of the population – including those who have been most subject to blame such as students and young people in general – even in the absence of adequate support and guidance from government”.
Watch: Matt Hancock lays down the rules on exercising
Scientists have called for even more stringent rules as infections surge because of the new variant, which is around 50% more infectious compared to the virus that infected people last March, causing hospitals to reach breaking point.
Robert West, a professor of health psychology at University College London, said current rules are “still allowing a lot of activity which is spreading the virus”.
West, a participant in the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours, which advises the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told the BBC: "That means that if we were to achieve the same result as we got in March we would have to have a stricter lockdown, and it's not stricter.”
The UK recorded another 46,169 coronavirus cases and 529 deaths on Monday.
The latest data takes the total number of fatalities within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test to 81,960.
Watch: Excel centre in London opens as mass vaccination hub