As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, the possibility of ‘pandemic fatigue’ has raised worldwide concerns. Anna Petherick and Rafael Goldszmidt, alongside Thomas Hale, Eduardo B. Andrade, Rodrigo Furst, Annalena Pott and Andrew Wood, have published an analysis of changing levels of protective-behaviour observance in Nature Human Behaviour.

The authors examine whether there was a gradual reduction in adherence to protective behaviours against COVID-19 from March through December 2020, as hypothesised in expectations of fatigue.

Using multi-level models including mobile-phone mobility dataset, and the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT), the authors considered self-report behaviours from representative samples of the populations of 14 countries as well as mobility and policy data for 124 countries.

The results show that changes in adherence were empirically meaningful and geographically widespread. While a low-cost and habituating behaviour (mask wearing) exhibited a linear rise in adherence, high-cost and sensitising behaviours (physical distancing) declined, but this decline decelerated over time, with small rebounds seen in later months. Reductions in adherence to physical distancing showed little difference across societal groups, but were less intense in countries with high interpersonal trust. Alternative underlying mechanisms and policy implications are discussed.