In recent weeks, ministers  have given their own interpretations of Government advice, with Michael Gove at one point suggesting a daily run should last no more than 30 minutes and a walk no more than an hour, although official guidance does not set time limits on daily exercise.  

Ministers have said only “essential” travel can be justified, while guidance issued by the Crown Prosecution Service says people are able to drive to the countryside for a walk but only if that walk is longer than the drive.

Prof Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London, sits on Sage’s sub-committee on behaviours. She said apparent conflicts between different aspects of advice were also undermining the Government’s messages.

“On the one hand, people are being told to stay at home because we must have no transmission – you can’t even see your children or grandchildren,” she added.

She said that, on the other hand, there are “thousands of people coming in through airports every day without screening, alongside what is seen as non-essential work, building work – building luxury hotels… selling a whole variety of products that aren’t deemed as essential.”

Prof Michie suggested seeds of distrust were sown if the public thought the policy “doesn’t add up” and warned that such reactions – and a perception that policies were unfair – could undermine adherence to demands to maintain social distancing.

However, she stressed that the public’s adherence to social distancing measures has been better than anticipated.

She said: “I think it’s been phenomenal, I think it’s been more than most people expected, I think it’s a tribute to the British public.

“Once people see the seriousness of the situation, and when there is an appeal to collective solidarity – which I think has been done very effectively – I think people rise to that occasion.

“The messages that have been especially about protecting people, protecting the NHS, have really had a big impact. There has been a great degree of altruism, which I think has been really heartwarming.”

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