18 March 2020

What do the public really think about coronavirus?


A matter of weeks ago, there was only one story in town: Brexit dominated everything. Now, the same is true once again, but with all eyes focused on the coronavirus outbreak.

In fact, the global pandemic has reached a level of salience unprecedented in Britain. The weekly “Top Ten Most Noticed” poll from Populus asks members of the public to name the main new story they had noticed in the prior week.

Typically, even stories that dominate discussion in Westminster often poll in the low single digits, with a very occasional big story getting named by more than half of respondents. Last week, the coronavirus hit 95% – quite literally off the scale. In second place, the Budget was most noticed by just 1%.

So coronavirus has the world’s attention, but what do people in Britain think about it? Well, expert warnings about the threat have had some success in getting through, with 38% telling YouGov they were scared of contacting the virus (with 59% not scared). This was somewhat higher in the more vulnerable older age groups (45% among the 65 plus).

It’s possible that people think the coronavirus will affect someone, just not them. Ipsos found 62% viewed it as a moderate, high or very high threat to the country, but only 25% seeing it as such to them personally.

About three-in-five Brits (59% with Ipsos and 61% with YouGov) said they were washing their hands more regularly, although few other actions (besides avoiding travel to affected areas) were widespread thus far.

Reports of racism against East Asians are backed up by the data – a month ago one-in-seven (14%) of Brits said they would avoid people “of Chinese origin or appearance” (although this was the second lowest percentage of any of the eight countries Ipsos polled).

Further policy measures generally have strong support, and in some cases very strong support, particularly for mandatory screening (86% with Ipsos) and quarantine (84%), with various forms of travel ban also supported by clear majorities.

As this polling all predates yesterday’s announcement of further measures, we don’t yet have data on all of them. YouGov asked about self-isolation for over-70s, which had two-to-one support overall, but evenly divided opinion among the oldest respondents.

Trust remains high in some information sources, with 83% telling Ipsos they had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in medical professionals and 71% saying the same about government health officials. The broadcast media (65% television and 63% radio) also fared well, but social media (22%) did not.

In terms of information coming from the government, these may be unusual times, but one thing still holds – Twitter is not Britain. Despite widespread online criticism of the official coronavirus communications, about as many thought they had been clear (47%) as unclear (49%).

Asked about the government’s handling of coronavirus in general, on the face of it the public seem content. More thought the government was handling it well than badly (55% to 31%) and had confidence than not (53% to 40%), both with YouGov, while Opinium found net approval (44% again 30% disapproval).

But both polls found substantial minorities (47% with YouGov and 41% with Opinium) feeling that the government wasn’t doing enough. It remains to be seen whether the new measures will be sufficient to shift this perception, or whether the public’s view of the appropriate level of response increases faster than the reality.

And fortunately, despite there being some differences between different groups in terms of attitudes to coronavirus, the UK does not display the extreme level of partisan polarisation found in the US.

In terms of more general polling, Boris Johnson’s personal ratings have declined slightly. But there isn’t yet any evidence that recent developments have hurt his party’s standing in voting intention.

The two published VI polls conducted this month from Opinium and Kantar put the Conservatives on or nudging 50%, with Labour around the 30% mark. These levels may well change once Labour elects its new leader, but the trend is the thing to watch, in order to measure any possible impact of newsflow.

So far there hasn’t been any – indeed there might even be a “rally round the flag” effect as is often seen during wars, although there’s too little data to infer that with any confidence.

As for what happens next, making any kind of prediction is difficult – there is simply no precedent in the era of public opinion research for what is about to happen.

Politically, there is a long list of known unknowns, including the direct effect of the pandemic and the way the government handles it, the economic effects, the societal consequences of a lockdown and wholesale disruption in peacetime, and so on.

Things may look very different a year from now.

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Matt Singh is a pollster and the founder of Number Cruncher Analytics

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.