The government has taken a big risk reopening schools this early

The government may need to ask people to put their faith in it once more — but its current actions are chipping away at public confidence.

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When the measures to ease lockdown were announced on 7 May, they were billed by the Daily Express as the "first steps to freedom", but statistics quoted in today's papers show that the reopening of schools has been met not with elation but unease. A million children who are eligible to return to school today have remained at home, their parents unconvinced that the government has done enough to keep them and their families safe.

This marks a change in the public's confidence in the government. For most of March, April and May the government, like most other national governments, has benefited from almost unanimous public support for its lockdown and the decisions that have been taken to protect people from economic damage.

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has soared from relative obscurity to having an approval rating to rival that of the (still popular) Prime Minister.

But this support has waned in recent weeks. The latest incarnation of lockdown, lacking in much endorsement from the devolved administrations in Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont, has the support of only 36 per cent of Britons, with 65 per cent saying the government’s messaging on it has been unclear.

This confusion is further exposed when the same voters opposed to the changes are polled on the individual measures. Each of the changes receives majority or near-majority backing. But the package of measures and its explanation are unpopular.

This feeds into a more general distrust; Opinium now finds more Britons disapproving of the government’s handling of the Covid crisis than the number who approve. 

The popularity of individual policies is something parties and politicians often try to capitalise upon when their unifying brand is performing poorly — take Theresa May's Brexit deal, or Jeremy Corbyn's 2019 manifesto, for instance. The individual policies were popular, but that didn't matter because the brands were so toxic. 

The importance of the unifying brand has already been demonstrated in Scotland, where, even before the change from "Stay at Home" to "Stay Alert", voters considered Holyrood to be doing a better job than Westminster, despite the fact that there was at that point no difference between the policies of Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson.

In a crisis, a government needs to maintain the public trust for its policies and procedures to be followed. That the reopening of schools in England, even in a piecemeal and experimental fashion, has been met with widespread resistance — YouGov polling has found that 50 per cent of parents are opposed to schools reopening — suggests that faith in the government's competence is low.

Other pollsters had a slightly brighter picture for the government, but the general trend remained the same. Opinium reported that 9 per cent support reopening today, 18 per cent once the number of new infections starts to go down, and 52 per cent support limited reopening with a falling infection rate. Meanwhile when Deltapoll polled parents, 49 per cent said they would send their kids to school as soon as they reopened, but one in three (33 per cent) said they'd wait until they decided it was safe (18 per cent were undecided).

These snapshots of nationwide opinion may indicate how likely the general public would be to comply with further measures from the government, whether that is further easing or a second lockdown.

While it is true that government has been forced to rule on one of the most sensitive areas of policy — the safety of children — ahead of other parts of society, large-scale public unwillingness to follow its measures do not bode well.

Couple this with Opinium's finding on 13 May that the government's handling of the crisis had received a negative approval rating for the first time, and you may be looking at still greater public distrust in the government to come.

If a second wave of infections and deaths accompanies a too-hasty lifting of lockdown measures — as it did in Iran — then a return to a tight, perhaps tighter, lockdown would be inevitable. But how supportive and compliant would people be if they had already lost faith in their government?

The willingness of the nation to comply with lockdown guidance should not be taken for granted, nor should the desire to leave it. Compared to other countries, the UK public is the most cautious about reopening the economy. People need to perceive they are in good hands, and a failure to manage well at this point could have lasting effects that are not only political.

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman

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