A survey of the British public shows that the UK government appears to have successfully avoided blame for the spread of COVID-19, at least in the first month of lockdown. Asking them for their views reveals that messaging about the importance of individual and collective responsibility to defeat the virus seems to have worked.
However, people are more confused about what actually caused the coronavirus pandemic, which could help fuel conspiracy theories.
The findings come from the work of an interdisciplinary research team of UK-based academics, which conducted a survey of the British adult population. The survey was administered online to a representative sample of the UK population (2,100), by polling organisation Deltapoll between April 10 and April 15 2020. At the time, the UK was entering its fourth week of lockdown and prime minister was recovering in intensive care from COVID-19.
Causes, conspiracies, confusion
Most people, based on what they have heard or read, agree with the current scientific consensus that COVID-19 came from nature and rather than being man made. The relative majority (38%) thought it came from animals, in line with reports that it was transferred to humans through bats or pangolins, with a further 11% believing that it came about naturally.
Another 15% thought it was caused by human living habits, particularly those involving wildlife. Experts have identified wildlife trading and wet markets selling wild animals as a key contributing factor.
However, more than one in five agreed with conspiracy theories that COVID-19 was developed in a lab. This was a view which US President Donald Trump recently endorsed, claiming that he had seen undisclosed evidence that COVID-19 escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. In our survey, 15% of respondents thought it was indeed created intentionally in a lab and 7% thought it was created accidentally. Less than 1% questioned the existence of the virus, with 13% saying they didn’t know what caused the pandemic. That’s perhaps not surprising, given the cacophony of contradictory information over the issue.
Division and unity
We also asked our respondents to say who they thought was most to blame for the spread of COVID-19 in the UK. An overwhelming majority had embraced the UK government’s message to “stay at home and save lives”, identifying “those that do not follow the social distancing measures” (75%) as the main culprit for the spread of the virus. The complimentary message that “we are all in this together” also resonated with people, with 61% blaming “each and every one of us” for the pandemic.
At the same time, political discourse, particularly on the other side of the Atlantic, appears to also affect how British people designate blame. The Chinese government (64%) is identified as second most responsible for the pandemic, presumably for not doing enough to contain the initial outbreak or for trying to cover it up – claims supported by the Trump Administration but rejected by China. This is not a debate UK leaders have particularly sought to engage in.
Not far behind, globalisation is blamed by 55%, with the pandemic highlighting the vulnerabilities of global interdependence, and provoking protectionism and national restrictions to international travel, trade and production (including of personal protective equipment).
Blaming foreign actors and processes is a potent way for governments to avoid electoral punishment for bad times. This may not only serve President Trump, but indirectly, the UK government as well, which is enjoying a comparative low share of blame (35%), despite the high number of COVID-19 casualties in the UK.
Strong support for government measures
As the UK entered its fourth week of lockdown, a large majority (83%) of our respondents perceived government measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic as necessary to prevent a major national catastrophe. One in four (26%) in our survey, though, were in favour of relaxing the lockdown to avoid a major recession – with 22% undecided and 52% against.
Of our respondents, 22% considered the government’s measures a greater threat to civil liberties than the virus itself, which may go up, as the crisis deepens. At the same time, 49% believed that the economic burden of these measures is not distributed fairly to all citizens. The majority were in favour of more state protectionism amid the pandemic. There was, for example, support among 77% of respondents for the state providing more financial help to the self-employed and small businesses to compensate for their loss of earnings due to the coronavirus pandemic. Another 55% supported the state nationalising major companies of national importance to prevent their collapse.
These findings suggest that the British public has been convinced that the COVID-19 is an existential threat that justifies the suspension of life as normal. People are looking at their government for solutions, while also recognising their personal responsibility. However, only 50% of respondents supported maintaining the lockdown “for at least six months” to prevent a second wave of infections. This may serve as a reminder that social distancing fatigue and ongoing framing contests – at home and away – could rapidly change attitudes, as the context changes.