Public First, a strategy and communications agency, recently carried out research for the UK government after being awarded a contract earlier this year worth £840,000. The focus of that research was on public attitudes to Covid-19. One of the group’s founders, James Frayne, has now suggested Downing Street is taking a reactionary approach to a second wave of coronavirus.
The current strategy, he told Times Radio at the end of last month, would “come back to haunt them” because “the public are obsessed by seeing their families”. The government’s attitude, he added, was “dicing with political death”.
But is this true? As any Twitter user will know, voluble sections of both the commentariat and the wider population are questioning the need for stringent lockdown measures. If you only heard the social media “noise”, you might be forgiven for thinking the country was actually cleanly and evenly split on a second lockdown.
The data tells a different story. Recent government measures to tackle the second wave of Covid-19 enjoy wide-ranging support. Eighty five per cent of Britons back the regular use of face masks, and 69 per cent support closing pubs and restaurants at 10pm.
Not only do these measures enjoy majority support, they are regarded by many Britons as insufficient. One in three (32 per cent) told YouGov they regarded the new measures as proportionate; while one in ten thought they went too far. But the plurality – 45 per cent – said the changes didn’t go far enough.
From what we can ascertain, the public are divided over the best policy response to Covid-19. Britons are equally unsure whether the recent measures will stem the surge in cases.
And while the measures enjoy the backing of a majority, there are significant dissenters. Though the 10pm curfew enjoys 69 per cent support, it is opposed by one in three young people – a demographic whose willingness to follow rules is key in determining how quickly (or not) the virus spreads. If there is no confidence, then there is less adherence to the rules.
This can be compounded by a lack of clarity on exactly what rules are in a particular place at a particular time. Local lockdowns, and complex and constantly changing national rules, have muddied the public’s understanding. Britons in general aren’t as attached to the 24-hour news cycle as political junkies might like to believe. If individuals don’t know what is required of them, it is of course less likely rules will be observed.
When the stay-at-home order was given in March, just 4 per cent of Britons found the decision objectionable. Every demographic – young and old – rallied in favour of what was then the government’s clearest message: stay indoors to protect the NHS. Behavioural surveys from the Office for National Statistics likewise found overwhelming adherence, and evidence of both public support for the measure and a near-universal understanding of the rules.
Support for the government’s approach began to fall in May, when travel restrictions were eased in England. Some 46 per cent of Britons said the lifting of the restrictions went too far; only 30 per cent said the rebranded communications strategy (“Stay Alert”) was clear enough.
Now, as then, the UK public is unsure of the government’s ability to tackle a second wave of the virus, with widespread concern that the measures are too lax.
This raises an interesting question: what measures would Brits be willing to entertain? And how supportive are voters of a second full lockdown? Regrettably there’s little recent polling to answer this question. In July, more than eight in ten (83 per cent) told YouGov that a second wave should be met with another lockdown. Analysis by the same pollster at the start of September found a plurality support in every English county for a full lockdown, with support highest in Northumberland, Cheshire, East Sussex and Devon. These counties, it should be noted, are more rural than the national average, suggesting, perhaps, some lockdown fatigue in more built-up areas.
This polling, however, took place when the UK wasn’t grappling with a second spike in cases. We can only speculate that since then support for a second national lockdown has grown.
So is Frayne right to say the government is “dicing with political death” through its supposedly draconian policy? I would contend that political death would come quicker if ministers either stuck to the current policy, or loosened restrictions.
However loud the Twitterati shout, what we have today is not a public waiting for the right moment to revolt against government lockdowns. What we have is a scared and confused public without confidence that the government will do what is right and necessary.