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22 December 2021

Would the British public support another lockdown?

After the vaccine roll-out, voters are less fearful of catching coronavirus and more sceptical of new restrictions.

By Ben Walker

No published work can properly convey to readers the mental toll a nationwide lockdown can have on the public. With many Brits now triple-jabbed, one has to wonder: are people’s patience with lockdowns wearing a little thin? Are we really going to shutter the storefronts, stop household mixing and expect overwhelming obedience to rules set by a government that doesn’t even play by them itself? What does Britain make of it all?

Firstly, the nation is already distrustful of and irritated with its leaders. Sleaze and rule-breaking have done more than enough to encourage many Brits to rapidly reassess their view of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party. Labour’s poll lead can be attributed to many things but one of them, almost certainly, is the perception that the government cannot be trusted to deliver decent leadership.

It makes sense, therefore, that a new lockdown would be given short shrift by the country at large. But caution is merited because some metrics still suggest that the public, while increasingly antagonistic, would still follow new restrictions. 

Take mask usage. According to YouGov’s tracker, the number of Brits claiming they wear a mask in public is almost as high as during the winter lockdown of 2020-21, and just as high as when the mandate was first introduced in July 2020.

Secondly, we have fear. Public fear of catching Covid-19 is as high as it was during autumn 2020 when the regional tier system was in place. Since then, public concern has seen incremental increases, up from a low of 33 per cent in May to 46 per cent as of 17 December.

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But that fear is noticeably lower when compared with the Christmas of 2020. The personal worry of catching the virus collapsed at the same time as the vaccine roll-out, and despite an intensification in headlines about Omicron and the need for new restrictions, public worry hasn’t jumped by as much as, say, its willingness to avoid public spaces or, indeed, don a mask.

When it comes to more personal measures, however, there is cause for concern. The share of Brits who say they wash their hands frequently using hand sanitiser sits at 39 per cent as of 17 December. This is a far cry from the 77 per cent who said the same in April 2020 and the 57 per cent who did during the last winter lockdown.

The number who say they’ve refrained from touching objects in public is also at a record low.

Is the country voluntarily social distancing?
YouGov data on personal measures taken to avoid Covid-19

Here we have a country that, in my mind, has convinced itself of its invulnerability to coronavirus. The vaccine roll-out is currently the only government measure to receive public approval, and to a lot of Brits, it has been regarded as this pandemic’s silver bullet: the passport to no further worry about anything Covid-related.

But whether this means the population will truant in the face of a new lockdown is yet to be seen. A recent poll by Savanta ComRes found majority support (albeit just 51 per cent) for a two-week lockdown starting in December. The public might be annoyed and distrustful of politicians but it seems most would be prepared to go along with new restrictions.

But a lockdown isn’t a public policy designed to win a particular set of votes in a particular set of marginal seats. It’s not party politics. It doesn’t need 50 per cent-plus support. It needs complete compliance from the country at large to work.

The data today suggests we live in a country that might not do that.

[See also: Even without a lockdown, Omicron is already hammering businesses]

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